8th June 1943: A conference at Allied Forces headquarters in North Africa (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Against history snobs

Al Murray proves himself to be more than a popular historian

Artillery Row

Historians are sometimes comedians, but comedians are never historians. Or are they? Al Murray, known to millions as “The Pub Landlord”, is a notable exception. Something of a renaissance man (he is a comedian, writer, actor, musician and television presenter), Murray read Modern History at Oxford University and is a descendant of the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray. Son of a British Army Lieutenant-Colonel and author of two previous works of light-hearted history, it is perhaps unsurprising that he has recently devoted his considerable talents to producing a book addressing “Command” within the Allied armies of World War II. 

Murray’s Command joins an expanding catalogue of works bearing this title, the most notable being Martin van Creveld’s Command in War, Professor Anthony King’s Command: The Twenty-First Century General and Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman’s Command: The Politics of Military Operations from Korea to Ukraine. In contrast to these academic tomes, which were written primarily for practitioners and academics, and focus almost exclusively on the politico-strategic and strategic-operational levels of war, Murray has produced what is rather patronisingly referred to as a “popular history”. This pejorative term raises the spectre of the divisive snobbery which attends the writing of historical work in this country. To mix the elitism of Nancy Mitford with the class distinction characterising English cricket prior to 1963, current writers of history in the UK are divided, consciously or unconsciously, into U and Non-U, “Gentlemen” versus “Players” categories.

Command: How the Allies Learned to Win the Second World War, Al Murray (Headline, £20)

Yet “professional” historians, residing as they do in the stratosphere of higher learning, are far from infallible. Professor Richard Overy’s interpretation of the strategic bombing offensive waged by RAF Bomber Command received criticism from the official historian of that campaign, Noble Frankland, in his fascinating memoir History at War. Certain established “facts” pertaining to Adolf Hitler’s military service in the First World War, as recorded within Professor Sir Ian Kershaw’s highly-acclaimed two-volume biography, were flatly contradicted by Thomas Weber in his seminal work, Hitler’s First War. Meanwhile Hugh Trevor-Roper, one-time Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford and Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge, erred spectacularly and very publicly in 1983, by mis-authenticating the infamous forged Hitler diaries. Works of historical scholarship, praised in the national press and in learned journals, have also been found wanting, containing errors, omissions and misinterpretations. It is therefore far from axiomatic that tenure at a seat of higher learning automatically equates to intellectual fidelity on the part of an academic historian.

As stated on the inside flap of the book’s dust-jacket, this is Al Murray’s “first book without any jokes in it”. Indeed, Command is no joke. It is an impressively serious book, deserving close study, despite its having been written primarily for a general readership. As a consequence, it is sprinkled with colloquialisms — but this is no war-porn comic. Instead, it is a thought-provoking, insightful and challenging work, which revisits some of the hardy perennials of military history, namely the nature of command, leadership and generalship. At times, Murray concentrates so intensely on the latter topic that this volume could well have been entitled Allied Generalship in World War II. As it is, Murray spreads his net wider, devoting two chapters to the issue of command at the platoon and battalion levels.

Deliberately eschewing the examination of command within the navies and air forces of the wartime Allied powers, Murray instead takes a land-centric approach to the Second World War, desiring to know how the “boots on the ground” were led. In order to achieve this, Murray uses ten US-UK military leaders as vehicles for his intellectual journey. These range from the big guns of World War II (namely, Montgomery, Patton and Slim) to less well known senior officers, such as Bernard Freyberg, Francis Tuker and Percy Hobart. Each had his own inimitable style of command. Each had his own foibles and quirks of personality.

Murray prefers the quiet, stolid general over the flashy, prima donna type

Though never explicitly acknowledged, it is these last two facets which absorb much of Murray’s attention. To borrow one of Monty’s favourite phrases, Murray strives to know what made each military commander “tick, and how this had a material bearing on the prosecution of the Allied war effort. This anatomy of command serves two purposes for the reader. First, it separates Murray’s ten chosen commanders into two distinct camps. In one are Montgomery, Patton, Wingate, Tuker and Hobart. Each was authoritarian, egotistical, ruthless, a self-publicist, eccentric, highly-individualistic and a non-team player. In the other camp are Freyberg, Slim, Bradley, Alistair Pearson and Peter White. Almost the antithesis of the aforementioned officers, these men were understated, quieter, more collegiate and empathetic. Their pen portraits exude the feeling of their having wanted to be left alone so as to soldier, to finish the job as quickly and as cheaply as possible. No theatricals or temper tantrums on their part.

Second, this deep dive into the psychology of these Allied commanders reveals much about the author himself. The most significant takeaways are that Murray prefers the quiet, determined, stolid general over the flashy, gung-ho, prima donna type. More importantly, the author recognises the fact that despite disparities in personality and outlook, each of these officers possessed at least one thing in common: they all brought diversity of thought to the party. On a number of occasions throughout the book, Murray enthuses about Churchill’s love of disagreement and abhorrence of received wisdom and “group think”. As he makes clear, Churchill’s fertile mind instead desired fresh ideas, unconventional thinking and diversity of opinion.

Another common denominator in this story stems from the fact that all of these dramatis personae had a professional interest in the “fighting power” of their respective Army, Corps, Division, Brigade, battalion, company or platoon. Fighting power consists of three main components: the “physical”, the “conceptual” and the “moral”. The physical component “furnishes the means to fight i.e. manpower, equipment, logistics, training and readiness”. The conceptual element embraces “the thought processes behind military actions that involve the principles of war, doctrine and development of military forces and equipment for the future”. Finally, the moral component addresses the ability to get soldiers to fight, encompassing four fundamental elements: “the motivation to achieve the task in hand; effective leadership from those placed in authority; adequate and appropriate welfare provision; and sound management of all personnel and resources”.

Murray implicitly draws upon these separate components throughout Command. As a divisional commander in France in 1940, Montgomery is shown to have harboured a deep concern for the welfare of his men by endeavouring to reduce the spread of Venereal Disease, VD, throughout the ranks. Freyberg is revealed to have been conceptually flawed — or as Murray puts it, “he doesn’t seem to have been very bright” — by his misuse of ULTRA intelligence during the German invasion of Crete in May 1941. Percy Hobart is held up to be master of the physical component through his creation and training of no less than three armoured divisions. He also displayed his genius in facilitating the design of what were to be named “Hobart’s ‘Funnies’”, a collection of specially modified armoured vehicles constructed to penetrate Hitler’s Atlantic Wall on D-Day. 

Differences in temperament among these commanders counted. One of the keys to effective command is the ability to balance the requirements of all three competing components of fighting power. It is akin to plate spinning: prolonged inattention to one or more of them results in their crashing to the floor, with all the attendant fallout for a military organisation whose fighting power suffers accordingly. Significantly, Murray’s research highlights a correlation between the quiet, determined, understated general and professional success in mastering all three components. Slim and Bradley, in particular, score highly on this point. Both juggled these unrelenting demands steadily and uncomplainingly. Both can be treated, therefore, as true architects of victory in their respective theatres of operation.

If only his alter ego would allow him to escape the confines of a local boozer

Historiographically, Command, at the micro level, represents another literary landmark on a seemingly endless road of historical research into leadership, generalship and command during World War II. As Murray concedes in his introduction, “The Second World War is an endlessly peelable onion, a subject that seems to offer no boundaries, that throws up new mysteries and revelations as well as mythologies even as it glides slowly further into the past”. Like other works on this heavily-ploughed field of historical inquiry, it acts as a focus and primer for further thought, debate and investigation. At the macro level, Command also poses two interconnected questions. First, what sort of history do we want from our historians? Whig history? Iconoclastic and revisionist tomes? Narrative? Minute-by-minute accounts? Or do we simply wish them to, in the words of the German historian, Leopold von Ranke, recreate “how it really was”.

Second, should history, and in particular military history, be the sole preserve of institutional “professional” historians (“Gentlemen”), whose style of prose may be elegant, but whose work is sometimes questionable? Should it perhaps continue to be the toy of a select few (the usual suspects), who are championed by corporate publishing houses only too eager to accommodate their “best selling” authors? Or should history ultimately become more democratised and therefore open to a far greater diversity of thought and talent (“Players”)? Regrettably, the responsibility for such a paradigm shift rests primarily with universities and publishers. Despite being a “celebrity” himself, Al Murray has perhaps unintentionally fired a starting pistol to a long overdue debate as to the future character and direction of travel of history writing in this country.

The Oxford historian and one-time Warden of St Antony’s College, Raymond Carr, held a personal belief regarding the reviewing of books: “Never take on a book if you’re going to slam it. Think of the poor sod who wrote it, all that bloody effort”. Al Murray must be congratulated for having put a lot of “bloody effort” into producing Command during the COVID-19 lockdown of 2020-2021. If only his alter ego would allow him to escape the confines of a local boozer, Al Murray would make an exceedingly good military historian, possessing, as he does, a Fingerspitzengefühl for the subject. It is sincerely hoped that this is not the last occasion on which Mr Murray picks up his pen to write military history, as he may well have found his true métier. Command is therefore recommended reading for both the historian and general reader alike.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover