George S. Patton Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Patton, George S. 1885-1945

(Full name George Smith Patton, Jr.) American military commander, memoirist, historian, nonfiction writer, and poet.

General George S. Patton, Jr. commanded United States tank forces in World War II, conducting important campaigns in Tunisia, Sicily, France, and Germany. Nicknamed "Old Blood and Guts," he was known for his flamboyant manner, his often crude or impolitic public statements and actions, and his decisive leadership as a commander. In addition to his extroverted qualities, however, Patton was a scholar of history who possessed—according to many who knew him well—a surprising degree of sensitivity. His scholarship found expression in his military writings, and his sensitivity in his poetic work. Except for articles in military journals and a handful of poems that appeared in newspapers, however, the majority of his output was published only after his death. His nonfiction, his poetry, and his life shared a common theme: a preoccupation with war.

Biographical Information

Patton's family came originally from Virginia, where many of his forebears had fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War. By the time he was born in 1885, however, the wealthy and influential Patton family had settled in San Gabriel, California. Because he suffered from dyslexia, Patton had to be educated at home, and even when he entered a private school in Pasadena, he found himself an object of ridicule. He spent his first year of college at Virginia Military Institute, but transferred to West Point in 1905. After his graduation, Patton received a commission as a first lieutenant in the cavalry. The next decade he served in Illinois, Virginia, and Kansas and competed on the U.S. pentathlon team at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics.

In 1916, Patton went to Mexico with General John J. Pershing in an attempt to capture rebel leader Pancho Villa after the revolutionary's forces killed some U.S. citizens in New Mexico. Though the army never caught Villa, Patton did kill three of the latter's bodyguards. More importantly, he took an automobile out on patrol, which may have been the first use of a motor vehicle in combat by the U.S. Army. Soon Patton would have an opportunity for greater exposure to the principal of mechanized combat, when in 1917 he went with Pershing to France. Up to that time he had been a cavalry officer, but mounted warfare was being superseded by tank combat, which made its debut in World War I. Patton became the first member of the U.S. military to receive tank training. In two offensives during September of 1918, he led the 1st Tank Brigade, which he had organized. Wounded in the Meuse-Argonne offensive on 26 September 1918, he received a Purple Heart and was forced to sit out the remaining seven weeks of the war—which from Patton's perspective amounted to a form of punishment. Later he would say, "All my life, I have wanted to lead a lot of men in a desperate battle"; but he would have to wait more than two decades for his opportunity to do so. During the years between the world wars, Patton—who had temporarily received the rank of colonel during wartime—was returned to the rank of captain and rose slowly again to colonel's rank. As another war began to seem inevitable, he was promoted to brigadier general and given increasing responsibility over tank and desert warfare operations.

On 8 November 1942, Patton and his Western Task Force landed in Morocco, the first significant American counteroffensive in the European Theatre during World War II. Following defeat of an American force in Tunisia's Kasserine Pass, he was made commander of II Corps in March of 1943 and lasted two weeks in the post before being removed because of inappropriate remarks he made to a British officer. Later he took charge of the Seventh Army, and in July and August of 1943 directed a highly successful offensive in Sicily. But when on 16 August 1943, he slapped two soldiers in a field hospital, claiming that they were fit for battle and only feigning sickness out of cowardice, he was sent to England. While the Allies—including his rival, British General Bernard Montgomery—overran Italy, Patton took command of the new Third Army in Britain. On 6 July 1944, a month after the Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day, Patton's forces landed in France and began to advance across the northern part of that country toward Germany. Patton's force conducted an especially rapid and effective offensive in France and the Low Countries, where they fought with distinction in the Battle of the Bulge in December of 1944. Following the defeat of the Germans in that battle, the last significant Nazi offensive, Patton's Third Army pressed on to the Rhine, facing heavy resistance from German forces. When he reached the Rhine on 22 March 1945, Patton—in a characteristic touch—urinated in the river. He turned his troops toward the southeast, entering Bavaria, Austria, and Czechoslovakia in rapid succession. Patton became governor of occupied Bavaria soon after the German surrender on 7 May, but was relieved of his position because he allowed former Nazis to maintain administrative positions in the Bavarian government. In October he became commander of the Fifteenth Army, a unit that existed chiefly on paper. Two months after this humiliation, on 9 December, Patton sustained serious injuries in an automobile accident. Twelve days later, on 21 December 1945, he died in Heidelberg.

Major Works

Patton is remembered more as a man of action than as à writer. Though he published a few articles and poems during his lifetime, as well as an army saber manual that he wrote c. 1915 at Fort Riley, Kansas, the majority of his significant work was published only after his death. The first major item appeared in 1947 under the title War As I Knew It, a "brief account. . . hastily written" of his campaigns in Europe from the Normandy landing to the defeat of the Germans. In the book, he offers his impressions of colleagues and adversaries, and openly discusses his fears in facing battle. In 1972 and 1974, Martin Blumenson published two volumes which made up The Patton Papers, 1880-1945. Although Blumenson edited them and provided commentary, the bulk of the material came from Patton's journals and correspondence, as well as his reports, memoranda, and other professional writings. As for Patton's poetry, he had planned to publish a book of it during the years between the world wars, but never did; hence the publication of The Poems of General George S. Patton, Jr., in a 1991 edition edited by Carmine Prioli, marked the first appearance of his poems in book form. Although the book includes a love poem to his future wife, Beatrice Banning Ayer, as well as verse on politics, the occult, and other subjects, the overwhelming majority of the poems are devoted to the subject of war, which Patton referred to as the "uncrowned Mistress of all time." Most famous among these is "God of Battles," which Prioli called "a sonorous invocation of a pre-Christian warrior-deity whose human apotheosis was Patton himself." Printed on cards, it was distributed to soldiers in Patton's Third Army.