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Battle over Monty

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 thing—what makes me tick!”

It might well have raised less coughing and counter-coughing if Chalfont had said that Montgomery was a superb general in spite of an unattractive nature, even an unattractive mother. However, this book is also critical of the military reputation. It is a moderate, balanced criticism, no sharper than judgments in previous books by other authors. But its combination with the psychoanalytic approach proved intolerable to fellow officers and relations. It should also be explained that Chalfont was already regarded in some of those circles as a class traitor for serving a Labour administration.

Montgomery, one of the sons of a brilliant churchman who became Bishop of Tasmania, certainly had an unhappy childhood marked by constant battles with his mother. He escaped into the army, an undistinguished cadet feared for his savagery on the rugby football field and given to cruel physical bullying. He did not have money, unlike most other young officers, and swotted away at Urdu and musketry while his peers ran up large mess bills. He was mercilessly keen.

The First World War, which he entered as a young subaltern carrying a sword against German machine guns, shocked him in a special way. The British, it seemed to him, were unable to plan, incapable of keeping control of a battle when it had commenced, and above all wasteful of human life. This last point, constantly in Montgomery’s preoccupations throughout his career and central both to his greatest successes and his most criticized failures, is acutely analyzed by Chalfont. Montgomery was not a humanitarian. When men had to be killed, he sent them to be killed. But the husbanding of lives was a means to an end: morale. Soldiers must have complete confidence that their lives would never be wasted unnecessarily, that—as the author puts it—“if men were to be killed, they must die in pursuit of a carefully prepared plan.” It followed that there must be an entirely new approach to communication between commander and men, so that the troops could feel not only that they knew their leader personally but that they understood what he and they were attempting to do, and where each private soldier found his indispensable part in the total plan.

Monty emerged from the war with a set of convictions along these lines, which he was eventually to put into practice and make into a new orthodoxy which survives in the British army to this day. He wasn’t an innovator in anything that concerned the technique of battle. He did not contribute anything to tactical or strategic thinking, failing, indeed, to understand many powerful new ideas about the use of armies which became current in his own time. But he was one of the great military discoverers, nonetheless.

The more “polite” society becomes, the harder it is to make sophisticated, literate, secure human beings kill each other, and risk being killed. By 1918, the age of absolute command, of theirs-not-to-reason-why, was over for the British people. Monty, at heart no less authoritarian than the die-hard generals of the Somme, invented command through consent. His ostentatiously careful preparation for battle reassured his armies. His deliberately showy image, his constant tours of the units to “put them in the picture” and explain the plan in his own harsh and professional language, served the same manipulative end. Senior officers, used to an easier and more aristocratic tradition of leadership, found this direct approach to the masses vulgar, even sinister. The soldiers, however, responded. They felt that they were being trusted, and they gave trust back.

When Montgomery arrived to take command of the Eighth Army before El Alamein, he said: “Let’s all be as comfortable as possible.” It is impossible to think of a German or Soviet or even an American general using these words as an exhortation, before a great battle. But Monty, wiry and ascetic, was as usual making a calculated effect. I will make you highly uncomfortable at times, he was promising his soldiers, but always for a sound reason. (Staff officers, on the other hand, did not benefit: they were obliged to leave their desks at frequent intervals and go on runs which—as Chalfont rightly says—did them no perceptible good and caused the older and fatter ones some harm.)

The real question, which lies behind so much American criticism of Montgomery as a war commander, is whether this concern for morale and “consent” did eventually become a reluctance to fight hard and take heavy casualties when it was necessary. This is the controversy about the Normandy campaign. Chalfont’s view is cautious. Basically, he justifies Montgomery: the plan was that the British and Canadians would draw the bulk of the German forces into the battles around Caen while the Americans launched the decisive, penetrating attack in the west. If some American commanders and sections of the press soon forgot this, it was the original intention and, given failure and delays, it produced the eventual victory. But it was also a part of Montgomery’s calculations that America was a larger nation and should therefore carry a higher proportion of the casualties. And Chalfont quotes a German field dispatch which comments on the British that “the enemy are extraordinarily nervous of close combat.” Monty once asked a guardsman what his most precious possession was. His rifle, the man answered in the standard training cliché. “No, it isn’t, it’s your life, and I’m going to save it for you.”

It was not “consent” leadership that won the war. Monty’s only really brilliant feat of arms was performed as a divisional commander in 1940, when he took his unit on a flank night march across the line of the enemy’s advance—something comparable to sailing along a lee shore in a hurricane, with no anchor. As an army commander, he lacked flair and offensive spirit, often failed to pursue, and occasionally made elementary mistakes (like his failure to secure Antwerp, which may have prolonged the war). He was an incomparable planner of the set-piece attack, a clever and systematic unbalancer of an opponent.

From a winning position, he was a great winner. But—to take three major episodes—he often won against an enemy who should never have stayed to fight him in the first place. Rommel had no hope of taking Egypt, was inferior in numbers, and should not have been in Africa at all. The Germans in Normandy, once Hitler had wrecked their initial plan to counterattack the beaches, were in a losing posture. The Ardennes counteroffensive was suicidal madness on the German part, and the Americans were already regaining control of the position when Montgomery came into action. All these things we can see now. At the time, Alamein seemed a deliverance, the Ardennes perhaps a new May 1940. Ordinary people did not worry that Monty might be quicker to pursue or to attack: they merely thanked God that when he started a fight, he seemed to end up winning it. In those gritty little hands, they felt safe.

Monty commanded in a manner which Genghis Khan might have admired. He sat in a well-furnished caravan, with a noisy canary called Herbie, and slept all night. This was Tactical Headquarters—“Tac HQ.” Main headquarters, with the staff and impedimenta, was somewhere else—if possible, a long way off. Tac HQ included a team of very young “liaison officers” whose job was to speed about the landscape connecting all parts of the battle with the two headquarters, and to give Montgomery’s orders to generals twice their own age. Monty, so prickly with anyone of his own generation, was at ease with these young favorites: there were jokes, outbreaks of horseplay, shows of affection. Until Tac HQ formed itself, the only emotional bonds Montgomery had formed were his intense links with his wife, who died in 1937 after only ten years of marriage: his contact with his own family and even his son remained at best distant.

The worst row about this book was provoked by Chalfont’s reflection that there may have been a homosexual undercurrent in Monty’s relationship with the liaison officers—especially with John Poston, whose death within hours of the Nazi surrender in Europe dealt the Field Marshal a blow whose effects were visible to his entourage for days. This seems an utterly harmless remark. Montgomery, like many professionals who live in an emotional bunker barring woman’s line of advance, was entirely unprotected against sentimental attachments to young men who penetrated the defenses because they were neither female nor in competition. On the whole, Monty showed love for young men in groups rather than as individuals—for the rowing team of Radley School, spoiled with boxes of Turkish Delight by Monty while he was deputy supreme commander of NATO, or for the Tac HQ team as a collective.

The real trouble about Monty was his colossal egoism. To the end of his life, he could not admit to a mistake: his attacks were always “going according to plan” even when the plan had blatantly failed and been replaced by another. His memoirs expertly dump for mistakes on others: Monty, for example, blames the Dieppe disaster on those who allowed the raid to go in without bombing preparation or parachutists. He would never have permitted this, he wrote. As a matter of history, well known to his colleagues, Montgomery chaired the committee which decided that Dieppe should take its chance without bombing or parachutists.

Occasionally there was a complete reversal of behavior, when Montgomery went into a propitiatory cringe before higher authority and thanked his superiors for pointing out his faults. This happened seldom, and never with the Americans. Chalfont devotes many pages to the relationship with Eisenhower. He is sensitive about Monty’s aggressive habit of taking Ike’s silences or evasions for assent, the cause of most of the misunderstandings. But Chalfont is less convincing about the strategic argument between the two men. Was it really impossible that Montgomery’s plan for ending the war could have succeeded: an all-out offensive across the lower Rhine and on across northern Germany, while the American and French armies to the south drew the remaining German reserves into a stationary chess game as the British had done before Caen?

Perhaps the truth is that the plan was good, but the general wasn’t up to it. It was brother-officers in the Warwickshires, according to Chalfont, who had said ten years before about Monty that he was “as quick as a ferret—and about as lovable.” A quick mind, but a slow mover, dangerously reluctant to accept his own limitations. Anthony Powell thought him essentially a parish priest of ruthless dedication, rather than a lofty hierophant or mystic of the military cult. “At the same time, one guessed this parish priest regarded himself as in a high class of hierophancy too, whatever others might think.”

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