Montgomery of Alamein
by Alun Chalfont
Atheneum, 365 pp., $12.95
Monty had an obsession about coughing. People who coughed were unable to hear what he was saying; worse, they prevented others from hearing what he was saying. No doubt people coughed while Christ, Mohammed, and Buddha (three of the Field Marshal’s four favorite leaders) were speaking; no doubt there was the occasional hack and hoast while Genghis Khan and von Moltke and Moses were briefing their headquarters staff. It is not recorded that they found a way of dealing with the problem.
But Monty did. First, he invented the coughing pause: “You have now got fifteen minutes—or seconds—in which to cough.” Later, when he had risen from the tactical skills of the army commander to the logistic mastery of a field marshal, Montgomery administered special cough drops, consumed by the thousand at NATO staff conferences in the early postwar years.
Now he is dead, at the age of eighty-eight, and a storm of coughing is sweeping through the ranks with no one to quell it. Everybody in Britain over the age of forty was faintly afraid of Montgomery while he lived. An uncle of mine, surprised but not grateful to find that he had survived active service through the last war, sat down and wrote a novel describing how Montgomery was about to sweep aside civilian government and assume full power, relying upon veteran Desert Rats and the military police. Even when Monty became very old and vague, and ceased to tell people that they were “useless—quite useless—above your ceiling!” there was reluctance to debunk.
Some critical studies of Montgomery as a soldier have nonetheless been written, mostly in the years after his departure from active service (field marshals in the British army never “retire”) in 1958. While admitting the jaggedness of Monty’s personality, they did not speculate about how such fractures of the psyche might have come about. Lord Chalfont has now done so. His biography appeared in its British edition less than three weeks after Monty died in April. There was, and is, a great stink.
The center of the objections seems to be that Chalfont brandishes Monty’s hate-stained relationship with his mother as the key to his character, in particular to his ferociously competitive drive, to his vanity, and to his autism in most human relationships. Anna Freud figures in the short bibliography. All this has been found “distasteful” and “boring” in London. It may be that Chalfont, who used to be the military correspondent of the London Times, until Harold Wilson made him a disarmament minister in the mid-Sixties, is an amateur psychiatrist who has not understood the formation of Monty’s personality correctly. Nonetheless, Bernard Montgomery was not actually born competitive, vain, and insensitive to others, even though he was showing all these traits in his early teens. Something made him like that, and there are questions worth asking. Monty himself told Chalfont: “You must find out what makes me tick—that’s the hub of the whole …