Freyberg as epic hero, Les Cleveland

Bernard Freyberg VC, Soldier of Two Nations
Paul Freyberg,
Hodder and Stoughton, London/ Auckland, 1991, $69.95

Greatness in a political leader or a soldier can be seen as the ability to direct momentous events to inspire a large number of people to attempt things they would otherwise not contemplate and to be remembered with admiration for this. On all counts, Bernard Freyberg, Commander of the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force in World War II was a great man. More than anyone else this century he directly influenced the lives of many thousands of young New Zealanders and inspired in them something of his own capacity for aggressive enterprise, tenacious endurance and personal enthusiasm for the task in hand.

His son, Paul, conveys many impressions of these qualities in this long awaited biography. It is a substantial, thoroughly researched work that draws copiously on a large volume of material, much of which has not been accessible because it is in the private possession of the family. Using diaries, personal letters and papers, comments by contemporaries, official records and his own recollections of parental conversations, he follows his father’s career from boyhood days in Wellington around the turn of the century to his death in 1961 at Windsor Castle from the effects of a severe stomach wound received at Gallipoli nearly 50 years before. The object is to vindicate his father’s record as a military commander in World War II and to present him in the round as a family man, a professional soldier and a leader with some very unusual, perhaps unique, attributes. In this enterprise he writes clearly and succinctly as, indeed, his father also did, judging by the occasional extract which is reproduced from an unpublished narrative that his friend the playwright JM Barrie encouraged him to write.

The gods smiled on Freyberg. He is the perfect example of a self-made man who owed everything to fortune and his ability to grasp it at the flood. There is no flaw (at least by his son’s account) in his triumphant progress to fame and success. As epic hero he remained modest and uncorrupted, disdaining theatricality, given to simple pleasures and enthusiasms, proud of his amazing accomplishments, but always interested in the concerns of his rank-and-file soldiers and devoted to their welfare.

His rapid rise to fame began in World War I where, at the age of 25, he became a company commander in the Hood Battalion of the Royal Naval Division. This contained an intellectual élite of university graduates and socially prominent young men who became known as ‘the Argonauts’. They included Arthur Asquith (a son of the British Prime Minister and a long-standing friend of Freyberg) as well as the famous Rupert Brooke. The biography describes how Freyberg’s association with cultivated and lively minds and his introduction to the intellectual world they represented, had a powerful, expansive effect on his development.

Wounded twice at Gallipoli and repeatedly again throughout the rest of the war he seemed to bear a charmed life. He won the Victoria Cross in 1916 and fell in love with Barbara McLaren, a beautiful widow from a well-known English family. (They were married in 1922.) By 1917 he had gained command of a brigade on the Western Front to become the youngest General in the British Army. After the hostilities he obtained a regular commission in the Grenadier Guards and embarked on a career of peacetime soldiering.

This was to put him in line for selection as the GOC of 2NZEF when it was formed in 1939. The Division’s adventures under Freyberg’s command have been extensively described and debated in the literature of World War Two, but his biographer found it advisable to traverse some familiar ground in order to deal with criticism of his handling of the Crete battle. Freyberg felt strongly about this and his son has accepted a duty to present the General’s point of view at the expense of three chapters which a reader not specially interested in military history or the controversy over the Crete fiasco might find rather wearisome.

This quibble aside, the main thrust of the biography is to consolidate Freyberg’s awesome military reputation. But it also presents many facets of his life and personality that are not so well known. This is important because a feature of his distinctive brilliance was his ability to get the most out of his troops by a combination of inspirational example and patriarchal leadership rather than by reliance on strict formal discipline and conventional military protocols. As a leader of men he towered over many of his contemporaries in both world wars. He had a flexible learning capacity and a special feeling for personal relationships that may have owed a great deal to his formative years in New Zealand at Wellington College, sailing in Cook Strait and competing as a champion swimmer.

Freyberg’s ‘up-front’ style of leadership, his astonishing personal immortality in battle, the ‘elastic’ standards of discipline in 2NZEF, the informality of his orders group procedure and his policy of trying to meet as many of the Division’s junior officers as possible all emerge in the narrative. It cites accounts by contemporaries of his kindness, readiness to listen, dignity under provocation or rudeness, and his tolerance of human weakness. A minor criticism is that it does not discuss his psychological motivations and his concepts of leadership in any depth, though there is plenty in the narrative to inspire speculation.

For, in assessing the quality of Freyberg as epic hero, we are still dealing in mysteries. Journals, letters and official records reveal much, but not the man’s inner consciousness, his awareness of difference from conventional military models; his tremendous gift of being able ‘to enjoy things like a child’ as well as being able to cope with fame and the sophistications of the post-World-War I intellectual scene; his provocative, sometimes impish sense of humour; his passion for excellence in sport accompanied by a parallel regard for intellectual accomplishments; and finally his near-Olympian calmness in the face of continuous, violent, systematic death and his extraordinary personal exemption from its mortal embrace until the very last.


Les Cleveland is a former Reader in the Department of Politics at Victoria University of Wellington. He served in an infantry company under Sir Bernard Freyberg in World War II.


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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction, Review, War
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