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.

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