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From the playing fields of Eton to El Alamein

29 December 2012

9:00 AM

29 December 2012

9:00 AM

The Last Great Cavalryman: The Life of General Sir Richard McCreery, Commander Eighth Army Richard Mead

Pen and Sword, pp.288, £15.99

The fascination with the last of the cavalry is enduring, perhaps partly because of the horseman’s apocalyptic links: one of the contenders for the last cavalry charge, about which there is still no consensus, is the battle of Megiddo in 1918, on the Plain of Armageddon. Now we have another question: who was the last great cavalryman?

Not that it is actually posed in this engaging biography of the British contender to the title, the little-known Sir Richard McCreery, who fought in France in the Great War on horseback, and commanded Eighth Army in Italy during the second world war from a tank and occasionally an aircraft. But it is implicit in the author’s criteria: ‘the only member of the [non-mechanised] cavalry arm after 1918 to lead a British army in wartime’.

This, too, raises an interesting question: why were there not more senior generals of that arm in the second world war? Probably because their record in the Great War was patchy. Even discounting Haig, about whom every jury is hung, and Allenby, whose successes in Palestine were brilliant (backed by a surprisingly fine chief of staff and fellow cavalryman, Chetwode), the performance of Gough alone is enough to suggest a systemic problem; and there were many non-cavalry officers in 1940 who feared a repeat.

The best commanders of armoured formations proved on the whole to be Royal Tank Regiment men, such as John Crocker, ‘Pip’ Roberts and Michael Carver. In 1940 there was only one cavalryman commanding a division in the British Expeditionary Force in France, the 54-year-old Roger Evans, who had never served in armoured vehicles but was appointed from a staff post in India to command of 1st Armoured Division when Alan Brooke was promoted to command a corps. He was not a success.

The reputation of generals from the cavalry was not enhanced in North Africa  either in the following two years, though not for want of ‘dash’. The only thing that Montgomery and Auchinleck would ever have agreed on was lack of senior quality in that arm.

The exception was Dick McCreery, who, like that other great cavalryman, Churchill, had American blood and American money. He was already an accomplished rider to hounds and polo player before going to Eton. When he left school for Sandhurst in 1915 his housemaster wrote: ‘He has brains and uses them… I am certain that he will make not only a keen but highly intelligent cavalry officer.’

After the shortened wartime course there he joined the 12th Lancers, saw action in the trenches, was badly wounded, but took part in the ‘Hundred Days’ counter-offensive of 1918, winning the Military Cross in a bold mounted action the day before the Armistice was signed.

With peace came the return of racing and polo, in which McCreery, tall and exceptionally thin, verged on world-class. But by great good luck the 12th Lancers were one of the first regiments to be mechanised, in 1928. The cavalry authorities had feared an exodus of officers from regiments exchanging horses for armoured cars, but ironically the very smartness of the 12th was its saving: most of the officers owned not just polo ponies and point-to-pointers but fast cars, and even the odd aeroplane; they knew what was sport and what was the military future.

McCreery therefore commanded the Lancers when they were already an experienced mechanised regiment, in the late 1930s, while most of the rest of the cavalry was still horsed or frantically trying to convert. Not surprisingly, in 1940 he was given command of an armoured brigade, and a DSO. It was not long before he was sent to Egypt, where he fell out with Auchinleck and was switched from field command to Cairo as chief of staff to the new commander-in-chief (and Old Harrovian), Sir Harold Alexander. This Eton-Harrow match was a good one, although it was not easy being the bridge between Alex and Monty, or vice versa.

Legend has it — for it cannot be substantiated — that during the battle of El Alamein, when the attack was stalled, McCreery saved the day by suggesting a more propitious use of the tanks. Whatever the truth, he did not fall foul of Montgomery’s professional judgment or his (much over-stressed) professional jealousy. Not long afterwards McCreery was commanding a corps, and when Montgomery had gone back to England to prepare for D-Day, and his successor Oliver Leese was promoted to command in South-East Asia, he took over Eighth Army for the final six months of the war — hard-slogging battles in northern Italy, overshadowed by events in north-west Europe.

After the war McCreery commanded Rhine Army and was eventually sent to New York, to the successor organisation of the wartime combined chiefs of staff committee. However, when in 1949 the posting came to an end and he was not appointed CIGS (Monty wanted Crocker; Attlee chose Slim instead), McCreery, a full general at only 51, retired to Somerset.

Richard Mead recounts the details of McCreery’s life not wholly uncritically. How the claim of ‘the last great cavalryman’ compares with those of, say, Zhukov, Patton, von Senger und Etterlin or Bettoni is another matter. But the claim to the British title is unchallengeable.

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