REVIEW: THE LAST GREAT CAVALRYMAN by Mark Barnes

Pen & Sword were quite keen for me to review this book, well at least that is the impression they gave me because I received a very polite email checking whether I Untitled.jpg1.jpg2would review it or not.So, what can I tell them? First off this is a straightforward conventional biography of an outwardly straightforward conventional general.

Dick McCreery came from a nice comfy background with all the usual Edwardian stuff, you know; the right schools and all that, and became a cavalryman in time to get himself well and truly clobbered in the Great War. By the time he had recovered, there wasn’t quite so much of him, but undaunted he got back in the saddle and being the man of quality he was he pushed on and finished the war with an MC.

He was a professional soldier. The inter war years saw a time of study, sport, marriage and bloody hard work. He was fortunate to find favour with certain senior officers who looked kindly on him, most notably Alan Brooke the future CIGS. This meticulous biography presents it all in an easy to read way which carries the reader along happily and all too soon you find yourself where the book intends us to be all along; at the crucible – World War II.

McCreery’s war was a fascinating one. He served in France in 1940, in North Africa and in the Italian campaign. He commanded brigades, divisions, corps and ultimately the 8th Army. He served under some of the greatest commanders and the most vainglorious monstrous egos of the conflict. He knew gentlemen and players. He knew princes and kings. It seems he knew just about anyone who was anyone and he wasn’t afraid to speak up for himself or disagree with the mighty. For this he paid a price, notably with Montgomery and Mark Clark. The former was a man who never, ever forgot an opportunity to stick the knife in however long it took him. It was in Italy that McCreery achieved his greatest success leading 8th Army to victory at the end of 1944 and to the end of the war.

His brilliant planning and handling of the Battle of the River Po was a masterpiece. At the war’s end he had to deal with occupying Austria and keeping the Yugoslavs under control. The new menace was deteriorating relations with the Soviets Just as a bankrupt Britain scaled back her armies. After running Austria, McCreery became commander of the British Army of the Rhine, he might have gone higher, but Monty made sure he wouldn’t. The more one reads about that little man the less and less there is to admire. The final chapters make sad reading with family tragedies and the sudden death of our hero leaving a bad taste to end a really worthwhile history. Richard Mead was encouraged by some very worthy historians to write this book and he has not let them down.

There was a hole on the biographical shelf of British generals and it has been filled. Rather than another volume on one of the established stars we’ve had one of the very important blanks filled in. Well done Mr Mead! Enjoy your turkey, you’ve earned it.

Mark Barnes

THE LAST GREAT CAVALRYMAN
The Life of General Sir Richard McCreery Commander Eighth Army
By Richard Mead
Published in hardback by Pen & Sword Military £25.00
ISBN: 978 1 84884 465 0