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The Life and Times of Major General Merton Beckwith-Smith 1890-1942
I have just read and thoroughly enjoyed a scholarly, well-written and sympathetic biography by Michael Snape, the Michael Ramsey Professor of Anglican Studies at Durham Cathedral, of Major General Merton (‘Becky’) Beckwith-Smith, who died of diphtheria in Japanese captivity on Formosa (Taiwan), on 11 November 1942. It is a book that deserves a wide readership. It was recommended to me by General Lord Dannatt, and I am grateful for it. Beckwith-Smith exemplified the type of intelligent, professional soldier that public perceptions of generals during the inter-war years often gets badly wrong. A fine, conscientious trainer of men, Becky knew what it took to create an effective, fighting division, and he perfectly achieved this with the raising, training and preparation for war of the 18th Division. It was a well-led and decently prepared formation that suffered the desperate fate of capture at Singapore. If only it had been given its chance, like the 70th at Tobruk or the 2nd at Kohima! It is not hard to feel that the 18th would have conducted itself as brilliantly in other circumstances, and Becky distinguished himself every bit as much as George Symes of the 70th or John Grover of the 2nd. We can safely dismiss Max Hasting’s ill-considered comments on the fight put up by the division at Singapore (which leans bizarrely on the account of the discredited Gordon Bennett, desperate to blame the British rather than his own troops for the debacle), other historians such as Colin Smith, Peter Thompson and Brian Farrell presenting a much more balanced account of those desperate days. In fact, the 18th Division, out of the direct line of the Japanese attack on the north east of the island, fought bravely and stubbornly. This was all due to the work Beckwith-Smith had done to wield the division into a formidable fighting force, with levels of confidence and morale that sustained it through the dark years, and loss of perhaps a third of its numbers on the Burma Railway, that lay ahead.
Snape is a fine historian, and does an excellent job with his subject, revealing a man of very considerable personal qualities and a deep Christian faith, which he expressed not by pushing religion down his men’s throats, but by a careful and diligent churchmanship of the low-church type that appealed strongly to the men of his East Anglian division. Snape is a little too hard on Percival and lets Heath off lightly, failing to appreciate just how dysfunctional were the command arrangements in Singapore at the time, which I have written about here, but this isn’t a campaign study and we can forgive him, given that what he has produced is a first-class biography of a man who, in other circumstances, may well have risen to the top in the wartime Army. In his soldier’s eyes, he had already done that, and their remorse on news of his death is remarkable to read. Snape has single-handedly rescued a fine soldier, a brilliant trainer of men and a sympathetic leader from an undeserved obscurity.
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