Even people who don’t know much about the First World War tend to know the phrase ‘Lions led by donkeys’. It’s supposed to have been said by a German general about the British soldiers: It means that they were unquestionably brave but that their leaders were fools who threw the men’s lives away in pointless attacks.
The best example of this sort of understanding of the First World War is probably the disastrous first day of the Battle of the Somme, when everything went horribly wrong and the cheerful, optimistic and eager young British recruits were mown down by German machine guns. That day – 1 July 1916 – is still regarded as the worst single day in British military history.
The debate on the generals of the First World War tends to focus heavily on the British generals, even though other countries certainly produced some spectacularly unsuccessful leaders, such as the Italian General Cadorna, the French General Nivelle, much of the Russian high command and, at least at the very end of the war, Germany’s General Ludendorff. Although the public debate centres on British commanders, don’t forget these non-British examples of military ineptitude.
The first people to expose the British generals to angry ridicule were the war poets, who blamed them for sending men into the appalling conditions of the Western Front. Later on, in the 1960s, many people looked back and saw parallels between the generals of the Western Front and the controversial tactics being used by American generals in the Vietnam War.
Historians said that leaders such as Sir Douglas Haig or Sir John French – the British commanders on the Western Front – were foolish, stuck in their ways and uncaring about their men. Books started appearing with titles like The Donkeys or British Butchers and Bunglers of the Great War: it wasn’t difficult to work out what the authors of these books thought about the generals of the First World War!
More recently, historians have looked in much greater detail at the problems the British generals faced. They’ve discovered that some of the accusations aimed at the generals aren’t really true: far from being stuck in their ways, they actually tried all sorts of new techniques and new technology to break through the deadlock of the trenches. They were facing a type of warfare that had simply never existed before, with completely new weapons like tanks, poison gas and aircraft.
Some generals certainly took longer to master the new types of fighting than others, and they certainly made some ghastly mistakes, such as the attack on the Somme in 1916 and the disastrous attack at Passchendaele the following year. But they also had some big successes, especially the campaign in 1918 at the very end of the war, which was one of the most successful campaigns the British army has ever fought. Some generals, such as Plumer, Allenby and Monash, were very successful in their campaigns.
It would be silly to pretend that the generals of the First World War were all successful or that all the criticism of them is wrong. But historians have to judge all the facts carefully and objectively, and doing that shows that some of the criticism is too sweeping and unfair. Many factors produced the ghastly conditions on the Western Front: Blaming everything on the generals isn’t right.