(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

General Bernard Law Montgomery may well have been the most successful British field commander of the twentieth century, as his biographer Nigel Hamilton asserts, but he was also the most controversial, largely because of his ruthless determination to succeed. In this weighty tome, Hamilton minutely examines Monty’s life from birth to victory in the Battle of El Alamein, where General Montgomery defeated the German Afrika Korps under the legendary Rommel. Hamilton promises another volume—presumably equally huge—covering Monty’s subsequent career, including his command of British forces in the invasion of Europe, the defeat of Nazi Germany, his rule as Chief of the Imperial General Staff and Britain’s premier soldier, and his years of retirement, assiduously nurturing his fame. Since the present volume begins with Monty’s supposed ancestry going back to the time of William the Conqueror, the sequel necessarily will cover a briefer time span.

This is both an “official” biography, in the sense that Monty provided the materials and blessed and in fact initiated the enterprise, and a labor of love, as the author explains in an “Author’s Note.” Monty took him under his wing as a youth and during the last twenty years of his life treated him almost as his own son. Hamilton candidly remarks that in undertaking this biography he was repaying a debt of gratitude, although he hastens to add that his intention was neither to whitewash nor flatter his subject. He has succeeded to a degree in both respects, more especially in the first: while Hamilton is careful not to gloss over Monty’s faults—he was increasingly, after his service with the British Expeditionary Force during World War I, vain, opinionated, callous towards his peers and sometimes insubordinate towards his superiors, and often “breathtakingly mean” towards critics and those whom he felt did not measure up to his standard of military professionalism—it appears that, except in a few instances, notably the 1942 Dieppe raid and the operation at Arnhem in 1944, Monty was almost always right and the very model of a professional general officer.

Monty himself no doubt would have approved of Hamilton’s biography as a shield against the sniping of his critics, both brother officers, British and American, who served with him, and historians. Russell Weigley, for example, in Eisenhower’s Lieutenants (1981) reports that American generals Dwight D. Eisenhower, Omar Bradley, and George Patton were all dismayed, or worse, at Montgomery’s failure to close the Argentan-Falaise gap in France in 1944. He quotes General Bradley’s aide to the effect that the Bradley headquarters refrained from criticizing Monty because of his enormous prestige in Britain and his “almost professional papal immunity.” A meticulous planner, Montgomery probably included Hamilton’s work as a foundation stone of the monument to his everlasting fame.

Hamilton’s father, Sir Denis Hamilton, was an old friend and admirer from Eighth Army days; in addition, he was Monty’s literary adviser and, in 1962, editor of the Sunday Times and Editorial Director of Thomson Newspapers. In that year, Monty proposed to Sir Denis that Thomson Newspapers acquire his private papers and diaries. Those included papers dealing with his World War II service from his assumption of command of the Eighth Army in 1942, his tenure as Chief of the Imperial General Staff, his chairmanship of the Western Union Defence establishment, and his stint as Deputy Supreme Allied Commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—some forty-four volumes in all. As he wrote to Sir Denis: “I imagine that when I am dead, somebody will want to write the full story of my military life in high command. It would be impossible to do this without my diaries and private papers.” In a review of Hamilton’s book in the Times Literary Supplement, Michael Carver wrote that Thomson Newspapers, in return for the copyright to the Montgomery Papers, paid the Field Marshal an annuity; that immediately after Dunkirk in 1940 Monty began to keep official papers and to keep a diary, contrary to military regulations; that while Chief of the Imperial General Staff he removed many historically important documents from the War Office, some of which he destroyed, including those linking him with the disastrous Dieppe raid. Hamilton assures the reader that the Montgomery Papers “will ultimately be preserved in one of the major national archives, together with the tape-recorded interviews and research material relating to this biography.”

Except for the detail, sometimes numbing and often repetitious—Hamilton repeatedly quotes at length from Monty’s lecture notes and orders to his commands—much of what is new in the book concerns Monty’s early life and his family relationships. Monty’s grandfather, Robert Montgomery, had been Commissioner of Lahore in the new Indian province of Punjab when the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 broke out. For skillfully disarming the Sepoy regiments of Lahore he received the thanks of Parliament and, in 1865, returned to England as Sir Robert, bringing with him his four sons by his second marriage, of whom the second was Henry. Henry Montgomery was sent to school in England at the age of eight and was seventeen when his father came home from India. Thereafter, he attended Cambridge University, having along the way acquired a missionary fervor which carried him to ordination in holy orders and, in 1876, to assignment as curate in the Westminster parish of the brilliant, eccentric Frederic William Farrar, whom Hamilton calls one of the luminaries, if not geniuses, of Victorian England. Farrar, later to become Dean of Canterbury but never a Bishop, was an intellectual and an educational reformer; his young curate was a practical, methodical man who believed that even parish work could be managed scientifically. Although his future grandson, Bernard, later disdained his Farrar blood, Hamilton suggests that Monty inherited many traits from his maternal grandfather. What was most important, however, was...

(The entire section is 2490 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Business Week. September 28, 1981, p. 15.

The Economist. CCLXXIX, June 13, 1981, p. 91.

Library Journal. CVI, September 15, 1981, p. 1725.

Listener. CV, June 18, 1981, p. 780.

National Review. XXXIII, August 21, 1981, p. 965.

New Statesman. CI, June 12, 1981, p. 17.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, October 4, 1981, p. 14.

Newsweek. XCVIII, September 14, 1981, p. 82.

Punch. CCLXXX, June 24, 1981, p. 1023.

Times Literary Supplement. June 12, 1981, p. 657.