1914-18: The lesson I learned

Field Marshall Viscount Montgomery interviewed by Michael MacKellar

Almost 50 years after it began in August, 1914 — and despite another major war and the invention of atomic weapons — the First World War still exerts a compulsive fascination on men’s minds. High on the list of current best sellers are books about it; television plays are written round it; scathing shows, lashing the generals and the politicians who ran it, draw record-breaking audiences to London’s West End. Why is this? Primarily not because the First World War saw the most appalling casualties ever to have occurred in war. Nor again, because the whole social fabric of Europe collapsed and a golden world of wealth and privilege ended. But because, with the wisdom of hindsight, the whole thing is now seen to have been an utter waste — particularly of a generation of young men who were Europe’s greatest asset. On Wednesday ITV present 14-18, a new film report of the facts of that war. Here, for a more personal view of the holocaust, is a commentary by Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery of Alamein whose experiences of the First World War, initially as an infantry officer, later as a brigade staff-officer, had an overwhelming effect on the way he conducted brilliant campaigns in North Africa and Europe in the last war.

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From the TVTimes for week commencing 1 December 1963

TO have taken any part at all in the First World War a man would have to be at least 63 today. It ended 45 years ago and a man of 63 might have seen just the end, being then 18.

It was very interesting to note at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday that the only political personality wearing 1914-18 medals was Lord Attlee.

The Prime Minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, was there, but he was 15 when the First War ended. Mr. Harold Wilson was there. He was two when it ended. Mr. Jo Grimond was there. He was five when it ended.

I served through both wars and when one looks back on the ’14-18 war one naturally compares it with Hitler’s War. It would be impossible to find two wars more different.

So I think we might have a look at the First War, and I suppose the dominant factor was that we formed great armies entirely from volunteers. That has not been done since and I doubt if it will ever be done again. You see, in Hitler’s War we had National Service.

Montgomery in 1963 with a map
Monty in the caravan he used during the Second War. It now stands in his garden and the wartime maps are still on the walls
Montgomery in WW1 uniform
Monty during the First World War

Then I think the soldiers were different. They were, of course, the same British men as regards flesh and blood, but they were different because of the progress of education and science.

In the Kaiser’s War the soldiers did just what they were ordered. They put up with appalling discomforts and miserable conditions in the trenches. They were slaughtered in thousands on the Western front in battles like the Somme and Passchendaele.

Barbed wire and machine guns dominated the battlefield. The soldiers lived underground and the mud was frightful, and the generals on both sides tried in vain to smash through the opposing front.

But they were unable to find the answer; they merely lost more lives, and the casualties were appalling.

In those days there was no close marriage between political policy and military strategy. The politicians in Whitehall intrigued against the generals and the generals intrigued against the politicians and the soldiers accepted it all as inevitable. Now the leadership in the ’14-18 war, political and military, would not have lasted very long in Hitler’s War, and I think the reason is this: Between the wars men found their visual world being extended — cinema, radio, television, and so on.

The young man between the wars began to measure his everyday environment in a way that was impossible before 1914, and he became unlikely to accept conditions of work not in keeping with the ideas he was able to absorb.

He would not, as a matter of course, accept the dictates of those in authority over him. He wanted to know what it was all about. He wanted to see his boss. He wanted to know what was required of him, and why and when. In fact, the progress of civilisation, education, and science between the wars demanded a different type of leadership.

Now, I went out in the First War in August, 1914, as a young lieutenant in command of a platoon of 40 men, many of whom were reserves called up on mobilisation. They were all regular or ex-regular and I fought in command of the platoon until the middle of October, 1914.

I was then very seriously wounded and when I was mended I was posted to a brigade in the New Armies raised by Kitchener. All volunteers who had to be trained. And I remained with the New Armies in France until the war ended.

That experience made me realise that there was something very wrong in the army. The generals and the staff in the higher commands didn’t seem to me to understand that battles were won primarily in the hearts of men.

They didn’t realise that bottled up in men are great emotional forces that must be given an outlet. And that outlet must be in a way which is positive and constructive, which excites the imagination and warms the heart.

If these forces can be harnessed and made to pull together the result can be terrific. The soldiers have got to know that the generals really do care for them; that they will never sacrifice life needlessly; that what they demand of their men is possible.

There will then be built up the feeling of mutual confidence between the leaders and the led.

Now all this I learned during the First War, and it was pondered deeply by me between the two wars. I was in a position to put it into practice during the Second War.

It is very interesting to note that the comradeship of the First War has lasted and I think it will go on lasting, because it has been cemented by the British Legion. And in every town and village where we live in this country you see the War Memorial commemorating those who died.

It was, in fact, the spirit of service, service to the country entirely by voluntary means — and I think the young people today have got to realise this.

And I think the young people have got to understand that this country of ours is a great country and its decline would be a great disaster for Christendom, as was the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

And if all young people today would remember, and understand they must give voluntary service to the country, then I think all would be well with our country.

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