Over the Top

Michael Howard

  • A Genius for War: A Life of General George Patton by Carlo d’Este
    HarperCollins, 977 pp, £25.00, November 1995, ISBN 0 00 215882 5

‘Mad, is he?’ George II is reported to have said of General Wolfe; ‘Then I wish he would bite some of my other generals!’ Both remarks might have been made about General George S. Patton Jr, and no doubt frequently were. His sanity was seriously in question. As S.L.A. Marshall, the most judicious of American military historians, put it: ‘Any man who thinks that he is the reincarnation of Hannibal or some such isn’t quite possessed of all his buttons.’ But this was exactly what Patton did think, and was not even half of it. ‘He declared that he had once hunted for fresh mammoth, and then in other ages had died on the plains of Troy, battled in a phalanx against Cyrus the Persian, marched with Caesar’s terrible Tenth Legion, fought with the Scottish Highlanders for the rights and hopes of the House of Stuart, [fallen] on Crecy’s field in the Hundred Years War, and [taken] part in all the great campaigns since then.’

As if that was not enough, all Patton’s warrior forebears materialised at moments of crisis to lend him moral support. After leading an attack on the Western Front in World War One (in his daughter’s words): ‘there was a low bank of clouds behind the rising ground, and he looked up and saw, among the clouds, his ancestors ... They were all looking at him impersonally, but as if they were waiting for him.’ Then, as he put it: ‘I became calm at once and saying out loud, “It is time for another Patton to die,” called for volunteers and went forward to what I honestly believed to be certain death.’ There were a lot of such ancestors: 15 of them had fought for the Confederacy in the American Civil War. Even as an infant, George could hardly wait to gird on a sword and join them in Valhalla.

All this makes splendid material for biographers and Patton has had a dozen already, to say nothing of a film that brought Richard Nixon great consolation during the lonely watches of the Watergate nights. Only Erwin Rommel can match Patton in the publicity stakes, and he was a very much duller man. For the British, Patton may have been a minor if spectacular figure in World War Two, significant only for his rivalry with Montgomery; but for many in the United States he remains the Great American Hero, who like all such heroes (including Rommel) was underrated and betrayed by an incompetent and politicised High Command. It is presumably this reputation that has induced a historian of the calibre of Carlo d’Este to devote nearly a thousand pages to a biography, half of which deals with Patton’s career before World War Two even began: that, and the undeniable fact that Patton was a fascinating, complex, odious, loveable, highly intelligent, foul-mouthed, courageous and unique monster, who but for the two world wars would have drunk himself to death, broken his neck on the hunting field, or ended up in an insane asylum. The British (especially the Scots and the Irish) produced figures like that in the 19th century. Few survived the First World War.

Oddly enough – this is the most interesting aspect of d’Este’s book – none of this came naturally to Patton. Born into a Virginian military family, reinforced by Californian wealth, fed by his parents with a diet of adventure stories and military history, he was expected to carry on the family traditions on the hunting and battlefields; but he was a sensitive and pretty little boy who was by no means sure that he could. It is a familiar story that usually ends with the child having a nervous breakdown or becoming a drop-out, but from the very beginning Patton forced himself to succeed. None of it, according to d’Este, came naturally, neither the physical courage nor the commanding presence that he would need if he was to fulfil what he increasingly believed to be his destiny – to exercise the highest of commands. He had to create an artificial persona, and he spent his life doing it. The courage had to be constantly displayed and tested, on horseback in peacetime, by exposure at the Front in time of war. The appearance was more difficult to deal with. Patton had a piping voice and a face like a doughnut. About the first he could do little; but he manufactured and constantly rehearsed a ‘war face’, a kind of Aztec mask to terrify all beholders. This he reinforced with all the spectacular insignia of command to which his rank entitled him, together with a great deal that it did not.

Clausewitz once listed, among the essential qualities of a commander, that of calm – something that British generals, brought up in the tradition of the Duke of Wellington, have always taken great pains to cultivate. It was one on which Patton would have scored very low marks indeed, but he made up for it in other directions. Like his rival Montgomery he knew that he had to command, not regular professional forces, but conscripts who would be scared stiff in action and whose first instinct would be to skulk, if not run away. In order to inspire them to attack at risk of their lives he had to make them as mad as he was. After having insisted on landing with the first wave on the beaches of North Africa and very nearly drowned in the process, he explained: ‘My theory is that an Army commander does what is necessary to accomplish his mission and that nearly 80 per cent of his mission is to arouse morale in his men.’ This he did by personal example when he could, and when he could not by a succession of splendidly profane addresses in which he assured his troops that when the moment came they would overcome their natural fears, that all true red-blooded Americans loved war and that they were going to kick all shit out of the wretched bastards on the other side. They must be ready to die if necessary, he admitted, but the best way to avoid dying was to kill the other son of a bitch first. The sophisticated mocked, the politically-correct were appalled, but it worked. Not for nothing was rhetoric regarded, in antiquity, as an essential quality in generals.

The other 20 per cent of command consisted largely in training, and about this Patton, again like Montgomery, was a perfectionist. He did not regard his troops as cannon-fodder, but as craftsmen who had to know their job; if they did not, they and a lot of other people would be unnecessarily killed. And Patton minded intensely about their being killed. Not for him the callousness of British commanders in World War One. Unlike Douglas Haig, he spent hours visiting the wounded in hospitals. Sometimes it was too much for him. ‘Suddenly, he whipped out a large white handkerchief and burst into tears. He looked around and said, “Goddammit, if I had been a better general most of you would not be here.” He turned on his heel and walked rapidly out of the door with the crowd of officials scrambling after him. The men cheered as he went by.’ Under the painfully acquired hard-boiled shell Patton had a very soft centre, and he was quite incapable of concealing it.

This indeed was almost his undoing. The most famous incident associated with his career was when, at the end of his victorious campaign in Sicily, he lost his temper and slapped a soldier in hospital who was suffering from ‘battle fatigue’. It was the act, not of a brutal and callous bully, but of a highly emotional man who could not forgive someone for failing to overcome his fears as successfully as he had himself and, more to the point, as had the horribly wounded patients who surrounded him. The incident was quite properly reported by the hospital authorities and inevitably leaked to the press. Eisenhower, Patton’s superior officer and longtime friend, ordered the General to make a public apology (in what other army, I wonder, could this happen?) and effectively suspended him from duty. Patton duly apologised to his somewhat bewildered troops, and was limogé for six months. Meanwhile his subordinate Omar Bradley was promoted over his head to command the United States Armies preparing for the invasion of North-West Europe. What if Patton had not lost his temper? Would his subsequent career have been different? Would the course of the war have been different? Would the shape of the post-war world have been different?

Leaving aside the probability that, even if Patton had not put his foot in it in Sicily, he would sooner or later have done so somewhere else – as he did several times, and several times again had to apologise – a number of interesting possibilities arise. One is that he might have been in command at Anzio instead of the hapless General Lucas. Then things would certainly have been different. That bungled landing might have been effective in tearing the German defences apart and forcing their retreat north of Rome four months earlier than actually happened. And what if Patton, rather than the indecisive Bradley, had commanded American forces in Normandy? Would he not have closed the Falaise Gap, trapping the German Armies instead of allowing them to escape and regroup to defend their frontiers a few weeks later? And would he not have been in a position to persuade Eisenhower to abandon his ‘broad front’ strategy in favour of the single thrust that he (like Montgomery) believed would finish the war in 1944?

The received wisdom is that Patton reached his ceiling as commander of the US Third Army, which was given the role of break-out and pursuit from me Normandy battlefields: a role that exactly suited his swashbuckling talents. The British CIGS, General Alan Brooke, summed it up very well: ‘A dashing, courageous, wild and unbalanced leader, good for operations requiring thrust and push but at a loss in any operation requiring skill and judgment.’ It was very much the same as the judgment passed by the German General Staff on Rommel – a Napoleonic marshal, superb in a limited role, but out of his depth in the complexities of High Command. Carlo d’Este questions the verdict but does not reverse it. Patton’s attitude to logistics was cavalier; he expected to be provided with everything he needed, and if he was not he stole it from neighbouring units. His capacity for dealing with all except highly mobile operations was limited: once German resistance stiffened around Metz he had no formula for dealing with it except bull-headed assaults. Above all he knew nothing of grand strategy and did not want to know. As his British biographer Henry Essame nicely put it, Patton ‘had even less political sense than Montgomery and that is saying much’.

Apart from anything else, he detested his British allies – not so much Montgomery, for whom he had the respect of one good professional for another, but the British in general, and he did not care who knew it. That certainly limited his effectiveness in Allied operations. He despised Eisenhower for the necessary compromises he had to make in the interest of inter-Allied unity, sneering at him as ‘the best general the British have got’. He no more understood the political and logistical reasoning behind Eisenhower’s ‘broad front’ strategy than did Montgomery, and his argument, that given all Allied logistical resources he could have won the war in 1944, made no more sense than did Montgomery’s. Within the limited field allotted to him he performed minor miracles – his turnaround of three divisions within 48 hours to check the Ardennes offensive and his operations to clear the Palatinate in March 1945 will long merit staff study – but he was lucky to be kept within those bounds.

In truth, Patton had reached the highest level at which war is fun. For anyone above three-star level war is inescapably Clausewitzian politics. To suggest that at any level it is fun is profoundly shocking, but Patton found it so and did not care who knew it. When the actress Lynn Fontanne asked him what he was fighting for, he replied: ‘I have been fighting all my life and hope to continue indefinitely to do so for the simple reason that I love fighting.’ He enjoyed it just as much as a front-line soldier in World War One. ‘Peace looks possible,’ he wrote home disappointedly in September 1918, ‘but I rather hope not for I would like to have a few more fights. They are awfully thrilling, like steeple-chasing only more so.’ High command only enlarged the range of pleasures. ‘Civil life will be mighty dull,’ he reflected towards the end of World War Two, ‘no cheering crowds, no flowers, no private airplanes. I am convinced that the best end for an officer is the last bullet of the war.’

Patton did not quite have his wish. Instead he died after a motor accident six months after the war ended, and it is just as well that he did. Those last months were disastrous. Appointed Military Governor of Bavaria, he neglected his duties except to obstruct the de-Nazification programme, expressing on all occasions his admiration for the Germans and detestation of the Russians, and denouncing with growing frequency the spread of Jewish influence in the United States. In peacetime all the prejudices of his class flourished, as had, in wartime, all its virtues. Not only did he need a war: perhaps the United States needed a war as well, to provide a legitimised outlet for his ferociously destructive energies.

He has, alas, left his avatars; not many perhaps in the United States Army, but plenty on the fringes. With the end of the Cold War their occupation is also, dangerously, gone. All are mad; but none can possibly be so splendidly, gloriously and, in his context, usefully mad as was General George Patton.