London Letter

Monty’s memoirs ignite a new war of words

BEVERLEY BAXTER January 3 1959
London Letter

Monty’s memoirs ignite a new war of words

BEVERLEY BAXTER January 3 1959

Monty’s memoirs ignite a new war of words

London Letter

BEVERLEY BAXTER

“Tadics and gentlemen, this is a printed - word contest between Mighty Montgomery and Bantam Attlee. There arc no rules and no referee and the decision will not be announced for at least ten years. By that time no one will care very much. Bantam Attlee is conceding ninety thousand words to the Field Marshal. Seconds out of the ring!”

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Forgive this venture into sporting metaphor but it is not inappropriate to what has been happening over here during the last few weeks. The memoirs of Field Marshal Lord Montgomery have not only been published serially in Lord Kemsley’s Sunday Times but in newspapers throughout North America as well as in the Far East and the Near West.

The current spate of post-war memoirs began with Arthur Bryant’s study of Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke’s war diaries. Alanbrooke appeared to have won the war despite the brilliant but amateur interference of Winston Churchill. And it must be admitted that Alanbrooke was not only a terrific diarist but a miraculous prophet. It would have been wiser if Bryant had unearthed some of

Alanbrooke’s miscalculations and false prophecies but apparently there were none. It also would have been simpler if Bryant had called the book: Alanbrooke was never wrong.

And now, after Alanbrooke, comes Monty.

Merely as an aside let me explain that because Monty is not a professional writer his earnings from these memoirs will not be taxed. And good luck to him! Our debt to him could never be paid even if we handed him the Bank of England.

But now let us give a slow clap as Bantam Attlee enters tne arena of controversy. He is carrying the weight of seventy-five years but shows no sign of it, nor has he entered the field of military controversy without a unique background. He fought at Gallipoli as a junior officer in World War I and was leader of the House of Commons, under Churchill, in the Hitler war.

But here 1 must sound a warning. Clement Attlee has a positive genius for reducing mountains to molehills. In fact the wits say that he draws no great distinction between the continued on page 42

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London Letter continued from page 6

“The British understood better than the

Battle of Waterloo and Waterloo Station. I he refere it aroused considerable interest when the Sunday Observer announced that Fail Attlee would review Montgomery’s book.

As befits a bantam, Attlee /.lid not go for a quick knockout against the redoubtable f ield Maishal-cum historian. On the contrary he declared that Monty was a brilliant trainer of troops, a superb battle commander, a strategist of the highest order, and the kind ot leader whose personality was felt by all ranks.

But later on Attlee's tone begins to change. Describing Monty’s exhortation on the eve of HI Alamein. he comments: “It was a curious combination of romanticism, tough talk and prep-school slang ■—a mixture of “God bless us all and hit ’em for six,’ " To which he adds the icy comment that C romwell, who was also a Puritan, did not hold press conferences. "Belter perhaps it Monty didn’t,” says Attlee.

Later on he recalls that at Sandhurst Military College Monty set fire to the tail of a brother cadet’s shut, and adds: “As a teetotaler he did not even have the excuse of being drunk.”

i'hen Attlee sets out to show that justice has never been done to those generals who worked closely with the commanderin-chief and played an integral part in the planning and achievement of desert victory.

"In very many hundreds of words about FI Alamein and how he won it,” writes Attlee, "the Held Marshal says exceedingly little about the complete change in the scale of the lighting power effected by civilians and generals at home and abroad whom he does not mention."

This section of the book, says Attlee, should give much more space to the part played by Field Marshal Farl Alexander. "Monty refers to Alexander with respect and affection but always as some remote fellow in the background whom Monty would get hold of when he wanted more support in dealing with the war cabinet or in order to ask for something to be done.”

Nor does Attlee stop there. "An uninformed reader of the memoirs,” he writes, "might almost reach the conclusion that Alexander was a kind of glorified quartermaster-welfare officer somewhere back in Cairo instead of what he was—-the great soldier statesman under whose aegis Montgomery was allowed to conceive anti execute the plans which won the tactical and strategical victory which cleared the Germans out of North Africa.”

It was at this point that I poured myself a whisky and water and solemnly toasted l ord Attlee, whom I have opposed politically throughout my long years in British politics. Every soldier of senior rank who fought in the deserf knew the

THE PROFESSIONS: 16

The Critic

The critic is the public's friend.

From lofty summits we descend To answer the eternal question:

Is it art or indigestion?

Without our taste (the keenest known) You would be forced to form your own; And it takes years to learn our knack Of finding hay in a needle-stack.

Ma vor Moore

Americans the nature

vital role that Alexander played in that victory. Nor does it lessen the stature of Montgomery to state that without Alexander the victory might have been less complete and therefore indecisive.

But Attlee is not the only world figure to give credit to Alexander. In Arthur Bryant’s biography of Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke the author says: “Alexander was responsible for the total situation in which Montgomery’s thrilling achievements were but one—even if the most important—factor.”

How true is the old saying that war is a bountiful jade. Today and for a hundred years ahead Montgomery’s genius will be discussed even as we discuss the feats of Wellington, Napoleon and Foch. Yet it was an accident' that gave him his chance. General Gott was to have commanded the British forces in the great desert battle but, flying from England to take command, his plane crashed and he was killed. In war as in peace the sardonic satirist is always on the prowl.

But once more Monty reduces even this incident to a commonplace. With a flick of tne pen he writes: "It was. therefore, an accident of war which brought the right man to the right place. Good as Gott was, he was, as he said himself, a tired man.” To which Attlee adds the pregnant phrase: "Montgomery was the right horse for the course.”

But what does our noble critic have to say about the Allied Supremo—General Eisenhower? 1 am afraid that he dees not put Ike in the gallery of military immortals. "If Monty's plan had been adopted instead of Eisenhower's," Attlee declares, "we should have knocked out the Germans and got to Berlin altogether sooner and before the Russians." The undoubted fact is that the British had a much better idea than the Americans of the real nature of Russian imperialism.

By contrast the Germans, although still fighting, had ceased to be the real danger. The American war philosophy was to destroy Germany as a military power The policy of the British, turned down by Eisenhower, was to reach Berlin and

of Russian imperialism”

stay there until the post-war division of territories was agreed upon.

Finally Attlee strikes a balance between Montgomery the soldier and Montgomery the soldier-statesman. Here is his verdict:

“The fact is that though Monty, with his penetrating mind, thought through his problems up to the level of army commander, he did not think through to higher levels." Then comes the bantam's wallop: "He doesn’t seem to have as clear an idea of the importance of morale and welfare in the larger sociological-political field. This is where, to my mind, he falls behind others of our generals.”

In 1947 Monty saw Stalin and discussed a possible alliance, or close understanding. between Britain and Russia. "He meant no harm, of course,” writes Attlee, "but did not just know where to draw the line.”

Finally, Attlee pays tribute to Montgomery:

“Monty’s memoirs have the stamp of Montgomery on every page. Outspoken, trenchant, speaking in language which everyone can understand, he says what he means and says it bluntly, if it is not always accurate, and not always judicious, it is always stirring and sincere. Many may think less of him as a judge of men and affairs after they have read it, but nobody will think less of him as a man."

If Montgomery's stature is somewhat reduced by the pen pricks of Lord Attlee, the achievements of Monty, his glory and his undying belief in his own genius, will survive. It is easy long after the event to see how errors were made, and to note how military leaders failed to gauge the political results of a victory in the field. But the crash and horror of battle do not assist calm judgment.

Attlee will never be included with the immortals but in his review of Monty’s memoirs we see why it was that Churchill had such great respect for the socialist leader during the war-time coalition. Earl Attlee is only a bantam but he packs a mean punch, ic