Last volume of `warts and all' Montgomery portrait

Monty: Final Years of the Field-Marshal, 1944-1976, by Nigel Hamilton. New York: McGraw-Hill. 996 pp. Illustrated. $29.95. Introducing this third and final volume of his comprehensive biography of Field-Marshal the Viscount Montgomery of Alamein (1887-1976), Nigel Hamilton avows that he has ``enjoyed every hour of this extended, investigatory tribute to a revered and, let me confess it, deeply loved friend and shepherd.'' The affection and regard this biographer feels for his subject are apparent on every page of this book and they have clearly helped Hamilton to understand - and thus to present - a more than usually enigmatic character.

Undoubtedly a brilliant and unorthodox field commander, Montgomery was always absolutely convinced of the rectitude of whatever position he was currently espousing. If he was thought a great man by many, few can have held him in the superlatively high regard in which he held himself. Add to this an exceptionally abrasive manner and little charity - or even respect - for other people, and you begin to have the ingredients for a figure more often mocked than revered.

Nigel Hamilton does not shrink from presenting Montgomery's faults. If ever there was a portrait ``warts and all,'' this is it (a feat the more remarkable in view of Hamilton's affection for his subject). And of course Hamilton also gives us the admirable qualities of this soldier: honesty, lack of cant, courage, hardheadedness, and, most surprisingly, charm and warmth!

One of the most interesting threads in this vast tapestry of a book is Montgomery's complex and unusually rivalrous relationship with Dwight D. Eisenhower. Montgomery was firmly convinced that it was the superior status of the United States among the allies, rather than any intrinsic merits in Eisenhower's mind or character, that resulted in his being supreme allied commander. This Briton's feelings for his American colleague were not improved when the general was elected President of the US, while the field-marshal was able to play no significant role in British politics beyond hectoring successive cabinets more outrageously than any other service chief before or since. Montgomery and Eisenhower were able to maintain surface cordiality for many years (Montgomery stayed in the White House as late as 1958), but with the publication of the field-marshal's ``Memoirs,'' containing a devastatingly negative portrait of Eisenhower's generalship, a permament rift (not surprisingly) divided the two old soldiers.

Montgomery's less attractive features, so apparent throughout this volume, are sometimes hard to take. But this biography has a major flaw that is far more distressing. It is bad enough that Montgomery was a dreadful chauvinist, always convinced that the British way was the superior way of doing things. But Nigel Hamilton seems incapable of discussing a political situation in any context but a British one. His characterizations of American strategic and political policies are often so crude as to verge on caricature. He is an unusually intrusive narrator, which is at times a strength, given his personal knowledge of Montgomery, but this also leads him to make statements almost as offensive as Montgomery's own, particularly to an American reader.

But perhaps only someone a bit like Monty could give us such an intimate portrait of the man, and so perhaps, we must endure these minor irritations in the process of getting to know a man who contributed so much to the art of war, but, sadly, less to the years of peace, which form the bulk of the period covered by this lively, if massive, biographical enterprise.

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