My history hero: Field Marshal Harold Alexander (1891–1969)

Chosen by James Holland, writer and historian

Field Marshal Harold Alexander, pictured in 1943. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the July 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Born into an aristocratic family, Harold Alexander studied at Harrow and later Sandhurst. He was an accomplished painter and sportsman but in 1914 the First World War intervened and he embarked on a military career. He served with distinction in the forces, rising through the ranks until in 1937 he became the youngest general in the British army. During the Second World War Alexander commanded forces in France, Burma, north Africa and Italy. His outstanding record saw him promoted to field marshal in 1944. After the war he served as the last British governor-general of Canada from 1946–52.

When did you first hear about Alexander?

It was when I was a young boy. There was an article in a magazine called Look and Learn with pictures of Montgomery and Alexander. I didn’t like the look of Monty, but Alexander had a gentle face with laughter lines stretching from his eyes, and yet he still looked like a proper general too. For some reason that picture stuck with me.

What kind of person was he?

He was a brilliant man. He understood the different facets of war – the tactical, operational and strategic – but he also had the ability to get on with everybody. He successfully commanded an Allied coalition of over 20 different nationalities, and was hugely respected and liked by the Americans – in contrast with many of the British commanders. He was also as kind and good-humoured as the picture suggested – the letters he wrote to his children, full of cartoons and doodles, are hilarious.

What made him a hero?

He had a profound sense of duty and honour, and is, I think, almost unique among successful commanders in having no personal ambition at all. He simply approached each task with the same intention: to do his very best for his men and his country.

He served on the frontline throughout the First World War (apart from when recovering from wounds), commanded German troops against the Russians in 1919–20, was a brigade commander in the North-West Frontier in the 1930s, was the last man to leave Dunkirk in 1940, successfully led the British back across the Irrawaddy in Burma in 1942 and, from arriving in the Middle East later that year, never suffered a single defeat. The only time he was ever seen to lose his temper was during the battle of Passchendaele, when he saw one of his men refuse to give a wounded German soldier some water. And he played in Fowler’s Match at Lord’s – the most famous Eton- Harrow cricket clash of all.

What was his finest hour?

This is a tricky one, because he had many, but I’m going to go for the surrender of all Axis forces in north Africa in May 1943. The campaign had been floundering, but when he took over as army group commander, he very quickly turned things around and handled Patton and the still-green American troops brilliantly. The capture of 250,000 Axis soldiers was an even greater number than was taken at Stalingrad a few months earlier.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?

He has been accused of lacking intelligence and of being pushed about by people like Montgomery, but close evidence does not support this. He also spoke French, German, Italian, Russian and Urdu, was a highly accomplished artist, and was a bit of a dandy too. So, no: I think he was incredible.

Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?

Not really, sadly. I paint and I also love cricket, but I think it’s a lot easier to write about war than actually take part and command in it.

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James Holland is a historian and historical novelist specialising in the Second World War. His new novel Hellfire (part of the Jack Tanner series) is published this month by Bantam. He is also the organiser of the Chalke Valley History Festival (running 7–9 July). For more details visit www.cvhf.org.uk