My recent biography of Bernard Freyberg – Freyberg: A Life’s Journey – was explicitly not a military story. His career was, of course, primarily defined by his army life, from First World War action-hero to Second World War commander. But I had already written a biography of his wars and what his field actions meant for him, specifically. For the new biography I wanted to explore his life and character – the man behind the military leader.
This still meant having enough military content to give context to what was going on. Of course this had to be done from the perspective of what it meant for Freyberg. Why, in terms of his character, did he make some of the field decisions that he did? This purpose differs from that of the ‘armchair-general’ analysis of military historians, and the conceit that events somehow contain an absolute ‘final’ truth. That approach reflects, I suppose, the war college notion that battlefields can be intellectually analysed and individual decisions judged against an apparent absolute.
The funny thing is that any historical explanation – particularly to do with people – must be relative. Documentary records are often subjective: self-serving explanations written post-fact. But these, of themselves, become valuable once that purpose is understood. Why did the writer of them want to spin events in that direction? Understanding events from the viewpoint of character adds a dimension: it becomes a context in which the often fragmentary clues about any decision in the moment can be placed. And it is this – not some abstract analysis of military action – that interests me, and which was a focus in both my biographies of Freyberg.
Here, after all, was a man of curious nature: someone dismissed as ‘dim’ by some of his peers, who had the uncanny knack of being able to present himself as somehow child-like – but not childish – on first meeting. But those who got to know him soon learned that there was a razor-sharp intellect behind this persona. Aspects of Freyberg’s nature and behaviour present as being somewhere on the aspberger spectrum, although it’s hard to be definitive. At any rate, to me the issue was clear: how did this man see things, in the moment of battle? And there were questions: why was the near-defeat on Crete in 1941 so important to him that he went over the battle, time and again, with his former officers after the war? What was his intention when ordering an air attack on the monastery at Cassino in 1944?
History, as always, is a discussion. Want to know more? Check out Freyberg: a life’s journey – click to buy from the publisher, or go to any good New Zealand bookshop.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2020