An Operational Military Biography

This section comes from my draft introduction to my thesis. It is my attempt to explain some of the limitations inherent in the biographical strand of history and the reasons why I am not using it in my thesis. Any thoughts are always welcomed.


While the theoretical and methodological framework for this thesis will be discussed in depth in Chapter One it would seem appropriate to explain why this thesis is not utilising a traditional biographical approach in plotting the career development of Trafford Leigh-Mallory. Therefore, this section will critique the biographical strand of historical writing in order to assess its validity and highlight reasons why this methodology is not appropriate for this thesis.

Jeremy Black has noted that the ‘Military biography has provided another way to make operational military history commercially successful.’[1] Indeed any examination of the shelves of any major bookstore illustrates this point with biographies dominating. These works range from biographies of the soldier on the ground to the highest commanders. In fact many of the highest commanders have several biographies to their name. For examples, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig has had at least twenty-nine biographies written according to the British Library catalogue with another due in 2011. In addition to this there are compilation of his diaries and his dispatches. Arguably this is because he has created a great deal of discussion amongst historians. However, many of these works are unoriginal a retell the same information in a different manner. This is primarily because they fulfil a need that the publishers have identified, the need to sell. Surprisingly despite the controversy surrounding his career this has not been the case for Leigh-Mallory, however, this is because of another issues surrounding the writing of biographies; the use of sources. Even compared with his fellow commanders of OVERLORD Leigh-Mallory fares badly in the biography department, only General Sir Miles Dempsey has been treated as poorly in this field with only one work on him.[2]

Despite the problems that will be discussed below it should be noted that biographies do often several advantages to the historian seeking to understand their period. Eric Hobsbawm has noted that biographies play a role in illuminating the wider questions of history and offer a unique examination of specific facets of the time.[3] In much the same way Alfred Rowse noted that biographies are a useful tool in starting to understand history.[4] This is, despite recent shifts social history, because personalities often play an important part in the construction of the historical narrative, thus, biography is a useful method for exploring history. Linked to this is the role that personalities play in the popular memory of the past. Key individuals are readily identifiable to the reader; therefore, they are an access point in to the subject. John Tosh has identified several advantages to the use of biographies for the historian.[5] First, in political systems where the individual dominates the system, such as in Stalinist Russia, an understanding of the individual helps understand those regimes. Second, biographies can highlight obscure periods of history through the prism of an individual’s experience. Third, biographies are useful for exploring the decision making process’ that occur in systems such as the military. For example, the recent biography of Field Marshal the Earl Wavell by Victoria Schofield highlight s many of the problems that faced Wavell in his various command position during the course of the Second World War.[6] Indeed issues such as motive and intention are important factors in understanding decision making process and leadership. Finally, Tosh argues that the biographical approach leads to systematic and critical analysis of primary material as their background and context need to be considered.

However, it is this final point that has come in for criticism as it is an area that often leads to poor scholarship. Barbara Southgate has contended that many biographers are akin to portrait painters in that they distort the image that they are trying to reveal.[7] This is often due to the nature of the sources being utilised by the writer. An over-reliance on personal papers and diaries often leads to a one-sided view of the subject. This often leads to the writer being blind to the faults of the subject and can lead to a moralising over the actions of the subject.[8] This situation is not helped when the biography is authorised by the person themselves or by their family. For example, Philip Ziegler’s official biography of Earl Mountbatten while offering a generally balanced view of his career does fail to contextualise Mountbatten’s career.[9] However, a recent biography of the first half of his life challenges Ziegler’s magnus opus in that is does contextualise his career and places him within the era of which he was a product.[10] Indeed Adrian Smith’s work illustrates what can be achieved with a biographical work by opening a dialogue with the various sources and works that already exist on the subject.

However, it is the issue de-contextualisation, based on the over use of single sources such a personal papers, that perhaps leads to the most serious criticism of the biographical methodology; hagiography. Biography by its nature is about the individual and while it may offer, as Tosh contends, insights into their context it is the process of reconstruction from suitable sources that often leads to an emphasis on the subject that may be deemed artificial. This artificiality places the subject of a biography in a place that he or she did not occupy. This is where a theoretical approach can play a role in contextualising, for example, the leadership decisions of Leigh-Mallory. John Lewis Gaddis has noted that it is important to draw the right lessons from psychologists and sociology in order to avoid a ‘cinematic’ approach to the subject matter.[11] Over reliance of documentation created by the subject can push the historian along a hagiographic path. For example, Barbara Tuchman noted about her biography of General Joseph Stillwell that the vast amount of documentation that he created produced analytical problems for her research.[12] The interrelationship of hagiography and sources that produce a one-sided view of the subject increase the problem of context. By failing to utilise material from other sources biographers fail to use valuable material from other contemporary’s sources, thus making their studies narrow in focus.[13] For example, in using the methodology discussed this thesis will make use of personal papers and documentation produced by Leigh-Mallory contemporaries’. In doing this it will map views of Leigh-Mallory as the basis for producing a balanced view of his career.

The final issue is the construction of a narrative in biographies, which raises problems for this thesis. The utilisation of narrative in the biographical model assumes a direct linearity between cause and condition. This leads to a simplified interpretation of events where in reality there is a complex interaction of factors that lead to decisions and actions.[14] A further issue with the construction of narrative is the generalisation of the issue at hand.[15] For example, a narrative discussion of the process of deciding whether or not to launch OVERLORD fails to grasp the complex inter-play of personalities and factors that were at hand in this important decision. Thus, the integration of the thematic approach backed up a theoretical construct, in this case Leadership Theory, allows the analysis of salient themes that are importance in considering Leigh-Mallory’s effectiveness as an air power leader. Consequently, this thesis hopes to avoid some of problems inherent in biographies such as hagiography and over-simplification due to narrative by utilising a methodology that allows an effective analysis of the Leigh-Mallory’s competence as a leader. Also by scorning the analysis of personal issues and concentrating on Leigh-Mallory’s operational career it is hoped to create an operational military biography that concentrates on the issues of leadership and effectiveness within its military context.[16]

[1] Jeremy Black, Rethinking Military History (Abingdon: Routledge, 2004) p. 37

[2] Peter Rostron, Monty’s Army Commander: The Military Life and Times of General Sir Miles Dempsey (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2010)

[3] Eric Hobsbawm, On History (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1997) pp. 247-248

[4] Alfred Rowse, The Use of History (London: Hodder, 1946) p. 36

[5] John Tosh, The Pursuit of History: Aims, Methods and New Directions in the Study of Modern History , 3rd Edition (London: Longman, 1999) pp. 76-77

[6] Victoria Schofield, Wavell: Soldier and Statesman (London: John Murray, 2006) passim

[7] Barbara Southgate, Why Bother with History (London: Pearson, 2000) pp. 30-33

[8] Southgate, Why Bother with History, pp. 21-25

[9] Philip Ziegler, Mountbatten: The Official Biography (London: Collins, 1985)

[10] Adrian Smith, Mountbatten: Apprentice War Lord (London: I B Tauris, 2010)

[11] John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) pp. 114-115

[12] Barbara Tuchman, Practising History (London: Macmillan, 1982) p. 72

[13] Rowse, The Use of History, pp. 45-46; Arthur Marwick, The New Nature of History: Knowledge, Evidence, Language (London: Palgrave, 2001) p. 146

[14] Tosh, Pursuit of History, p. 76; Maurice Mandelbaum, ‘A Note on History as Narrative’ in Geoffrey Roberts (Ed.) The History and Narrative Reader (London: Routledge, 2001) pp. 52-58

[15] Gaddis, The Landscape of History, pp. 105-106

[16] An example of this attempt to concentrate on the military context of an officer is; Gary Sheffield, Douglas Haig… (London: Harper Collins, forthcoming)


2 responses to “An Operational Military Biography

  1. Ross, Dr Vincent Orange (who is a biographer) also had a few comments on your topic. Specifically on the cause and effect in the narrative issue. See his talk on Coningham (starting on page 26) in the RAF Historical Society No8, September 1990. I’m sure you are familier with its web location. All the best, Jay

  2. Jay, Thank you for that. I had not seent that, so I shall have to go and read it now. How is you thesis progressing?


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