First World War Myths Lies and Distortions

Part 5 - Lions led by Donkeys

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

The General (April 1917)

‘Good-morning, good-morning!’ the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ‘em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

Siegfried Sassoon

In 1961 Alan Clark had his first book published about the British Generals of World War One, entitled The Donkeys. The book’s title comes from the expression: Lions led by Donkeys, which is purported to have come from the memoires of German general Erich von Falkenhayn. In 1921 Princess Evelyn Blücher published her memoirs, which attributed the phrase to OHL (the German GHQ) in 1918. Clark was unable to find the origin of the expression. He prefaced the book with a supposed dialogue between two generals and attributed the dialogue to the memoirs of German general Erich von Falkenhayn. Clark was equivocal about the source for the dialogue for many years, but in 2007, a friend Euan Graham recalled a conversation in the mid-1960s when Clark, on being challenged as to the dialogue’s provenance, looked sheepish and said, “Well I invented it.” Clark of course became a Conservative politician. By then Clark’s book was very much mainstream, and along with theatre productions of Oh! What a Lovely War, later to become a film, the public’s perception of the war was set.

The typical British general of the time was thought of as old, grey, gout ridden and comfortably billeted miles behind the front line in a chateau. Totally oblivious to the privations and suffering of the men they led, they would order formations out of the trenches, into a blizzard of machine gun fire, marching as though on a parade ground in neat formations, which would make it easier for the burial parties to locate the dead. The inconvenient fact that the British defeated the German army after the stunning 1918 offensive, is attributed to the Americans, the French and that the Germans were suffering from unrest and malnutrition. The British Army was the only one that did not suffer a collapse in morale, due to the Tommys’ stoicism in spite of their poor leadership.

Compared to other European armies, the British Army in 1914 was tiny and used for garrison duties throughout the Empire. Only the Expeditionary Forces based at Aldershot was at a high readiness and able to meet a first-class enemy and few British senior officers had commanded anything larger that a Brigade in the field. In 1914 the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) consisted of six infantry divisions, one of cavalry and five squadrons of the Royal Flying Corps.

The first commander of the BEF, Sir John French was sixty-two when war broke out. He had begun his military career as a fourteen-year-old midshipman and left the RN to join the militia and then the regular army, where he had a successful and notable career. In 1914 he had retired, although field marshals never retire and stay on the reserve list, so he was a natural choice to lead the BEF during the shattering German opening offensive. Unfortunately he was regarded as being temperamentally unsuitable to a coalition war. He had a deep distrust of the French and openly had a mistress, not the best of career moves in such censorious times. She was much taller than he and he cut a slightly ridiculous figure.

French lost the confidence of his corps commanders after an unnecessary disagreement with Lieutenant General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien after the Battle of Le Cateau. Sir Douglas Haig was already manoeuvring to replace him and French was removed in 1915, not because of incompetence, but because the war was not won by Christmas 1914, irrespective of the fact that nobody could have prevailed against the strong and now dug-in German army.

French did himself no favours when he was Commander-in-Chief Home Forces, by writing critically about the conduct and political direction of the war. He was critical of the French army and the provision of British munitions and equipment, particularly ammunition. There was a pattern developing here, which would rumble on well into the Second World War with the problems of dud bombs, torpedoes and depth charges. French also shamelessly manipulated the press, themselves unhappy with how the war was being fought, and he used the Times Newspaper at every cut and turn to attack the politicians and Haig. As employees of the State, senior officers should not conduct underhand briefings to the press and should have the courage to attack politicians directly and at the time and having the courage to resign on a matter they considered to be one of principle. Some current and recently retired senior officers would do well to remember this.

By the end of 1914 there were eighteen infantry brigades in the BEF, each commanded by a brigadier general. The youngest was fifty-one, the oldest fifty-five and all but one was from the infantry arm and they were clearly not elderly, infirm or gout-ridden. There is a huge step from commanding a brigade of 4,000 men, commanding 1,000 yards of front, to commanding a corps of 100,000 men responsible for ten miles of front. In a brigade the commanding officer would know all of his officers, whereas in a corps, the commander’s intent would have to be a knowledge of his brigade commanders, their strengths and weaknesses, as well as lateral appreciation of other corps commanders and coalition sensitivities. By 1918 the BEF consisted of fifty-one British, five Australian, four Canadian, one New Zealand and two Portuguese divisions. This excluded the Tank and Machine Gun Corps.

Progress up the ladder in wartime could be very rapid, with an officer commanding a company in 1914 and if he survived, it was not impossible for him to be commanding a brigade in 1918. An example of rapid promotion due to skill and attrition in wartime is Air Vice-Marshall Bennett, who started the Second World War as a flight commander and was thirty-three when he commanded Bomber Command’s Pathfinder Force. If the junior officers were learning on-the-job, then so were their commanders.

In 1918 few of the divisional major-generals were over fifty and Jackson (30 Division) was thirty-eight. And further down the chain of command, some lieutenant-colonels commanding battalions were in their twenties. Four British lieutenant-generals, twelve major-generals and eighty-one brigadier-generals were killed in the First World War and 146 were wounded or taken prisoner. Major-General Thesinger was commanding the 7th Division at Loos in 1915. An attack had stalled and he went forward with his staff officers to find out what was causing the hold-up. His ADC and another staff officer were killed and Thesinger is recorded at the Thriepval memorial as lost and having no known grave. Some would argue that a brigadier-general has no business being anywhere near the front line, but there is a balance between higher command and knowing just what’s happening on the ground. But it does illustrate the fallacy that the commanders and staff officers had no idea what was going on and were a bunch of elderly, infirm trench-dodgers.

Communications have always been a problem in warfare and the speed of events make it difficult to get inside the enemy’s OODA Loop and out-think them. Because the staff officers were reliant on telephone wires, often cut by shell fire, runners, often shot and carrier pigeons, often hunted by birds of prey, events moved faster than the staff’s ability to assimilate and process information into viable intelligence. It was no surprise that many did take the risk and go forward and a directive was sent out by Headquarters BEF that commanders and their staff were not to become involved in the fighting. The unit logs bear testimony that commanding officers did visit the front regularly. Units would see their brigade commander once a week and the divisional commander monthly. And these visits weren’t to ask if the troops were getting their mail and if their boots fitted. It was to evaluate the readiness and state of their troops.

To many the loss of life would seem callous, but as long as his political masters demanded it, the commander would have to function in spite of losses and to lead his men. This wouldn’t be possible if they were nipping off for a spot of counselling or group therapy and because of the qualities we demand of senior officers, they seem callous by today’s standards. Whether we agree with it or not, the First World War was by its nature an industrialised conflict with huge losses on all sides. At times the effectiveness of the weapons did outpace the tactics, but this happens in all wars and there was trench fighting in World War Two, the Korean War and both wars in Vietnam. The British generals of World War One did make mistakes. So did Rommel, Kesselring, Montgomery, Harris, Pound, Patton, Zhukov and Stilwell.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Caricature of Haig

Field-Marshall Haig has come in for some pretty scathing analysis of his competence and much of it may be justified. Some call him a butcher and bungler and other say he was instrumental in winning the war. Haig attended Oxford before Sandhurst and passed out top of the Order of Merit. He was a cavalry officer and led troops in the field against the Mahdi at Omdurman, before being appointed Inspector of Cavalry in India. He was responsible for re-organising the reserve forces into one Territorial system and was well-qualified to command I Corps of the BEF in 1915.

Haig was not sociable, he was abstemious and not universally popular with other senior officers whom he passed over for command. It was Haig who oversaw and managed the huge expansion of the British forces on the Western Front, the BEF’s responsibility increasing from thirty miles of front to 123. Haig managed the expansion from a small, colonial force to the largest army the British have ever fielded. He had to manage the expectations of the politicians and those of the French generals as the junior partner in the coalition. The morale of the British Army never cracked and in 1918 in was the only army capable of mounting a massive and sustained attack. Haig led the British during the 100 Days’ Offensive, which it should not be forgotten, defeated the German Army of the West. Montgomery always had senior top-cover during his dealings with the Americans and politicians. Haig didn’t. He was it.

The greatest criticism of Haig is that he continued with attacks that were obviously going to fail. But the critics tend to view matters from a British perspective and not within the dynamics of a coalition war. Some on GP have observed quite reasonably that we should never have been involved in the war, and others such as Peter Hitchens have made a very good case as to why that was so. But for the military perspective, we were in it right up to our necks. Politicians propose, the military dispose.
Haig never wanted to involve the British forces in battles of attrition but the Somme was the result of events 100 miles away at Verdun. He had wanted the 1916 offensive to be a breakout from the Ypres salient, but that breakout could not have been achieved until all the enabling factors, such as German exhaustion after the Spring Offensive were in place. The British Army held and went on the offensive in 1918 because it was trained and equipped and sufficient artillery support was in place.

Haig is criticised for being resistant to the use of new technology. On taking over as head of the BEF, he had heard about the development of tanks and lobbied hard for their introduction to be given a higher priority. That tanks proved initially to be disappointing was more to do with their fragility and poor communications, than their incorrect use. He encouraged the development of air power and insured that the air component was well represented in the Headquarters BEF. By 1918, the RAF was the only air force that had an independent strategic bomber force.

What probably dammed him in the eyes of the general population was his perceived lack of caring of the British casualties and his failure to visit troops in hospitals. He did regularly visit medical facilities in the early days and his staff officers noticed the profound effect this had on him and advised he should discontinue the practice. A general who is intensely affected by the suffering of his soldiers, cannot function efficiently as a leader, however badly this may sit with the Feelz Generation.

Despite being soundly disliked by Prime Minister Lloyd George, it was obvious that nobody else could have stepped into the role, otherwise Lloyd George would have dismissed him at the drop of a hat. No military leader engaged in a coalition war on foreign soil, should have been so badly treated by his own politicians. When criticism of Haig gathered apace in the 1930s stoked by Lloyd George’s memoires, General Pershing, Commander in Chief of US Forces said: How can they do this to the man who won the war?

And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
A senior officer and his ADC

One staff officer jumped right over another staff officer’s back,
And another staff officer jumped right over that other staff officers’ back
A third staff officer jumped right over the two staff officers’ backs,
And a fourth staff officer jumped right over all the other staff officers’ backs.

They were only playing leap-frog,
They were only playing leap-frog,
They were only playing leap-frog,
When one staff officer jumped right over
The other staff officer’s back.

Oh! What a Lovely War.

No commander in modern war can personally direct all the activities of those under his command. At the lowest level of the conventional army, a corporal in charge of a section of ten men has a lance-corporal to assist him. As new technology increased, so did the numbers and new disciplines of staff needed to manage it. The role of the general is to plan. The role of his staff officers is to provide him with the necessary timely and accurate information to allow him to do his job, plus manage the operation in the field of all disciplines. The general’s staff are responsible for the administration, discipline and movement of troops. The provision of equipment, ammunition, medical support and training. The delivery or welfare, career management and disposal of the dead, as well as keeping the general fully informed of what he needs to know. In 1914 there were 700 staff officers of all ranks, for the entire British Army throughout the world.

In the First World War the staff were divided into three branches: G, A and Q, General, Administration and Quartermaster). At divisional level the General Staff Officer Grade 1 (GSO 1) was a lieutenant-colonel and under him were the GSO 2 (Major) and GSO 3 (Captain). The A and Q Branches were headed by the Assistant Adjutant and Quartermaster General, again lieutenant-colonels with two staff officer underlings at SO 2 and SO 3 levels. Also there would be an Assistant Director of Medical Services (ADMS), who because of the peculiarity of maintaining parity with the civilian medical profession, could be a full colonel with no supervisory responsibility over the “teeth” arms. The same went for the Veterinary Corps because of the huge numbers of horses and mules and a Provost Marshall for the maintenance of discipline. The spiritual well-being of the troops was a given in those godly times and all dominions, including Jews, Muslims and Hindus were represented. It’s all beginning to get rather complicated, isn’t it?

Vital to the smooth running of the staff was the General’s aide-de-camp, rather unkindly referred to today as the “bag carrier and dog-walker” and sometimes the post is filled by a rather pretty junior officer, male or female. This is rather unfair because in wartime, this role made the difference between an efficient or a dysfunctional headquarters. The ADC looked after the General’s personal welfare, his schedule and appointments and was his ears and eyes within the headquarters. The incumbent would have been an extremely shrewd operator, a master of tact and diplomacy, able to manage huge egos and would have been a fluent French speaker. The officer would be at SO 2 or SO 3 level and have had field command, staff college and headquarters experience, definitely not in the mould of Blackadder’s Captain Darling. The staff cell at brigade level would be small, perhaps an SO 2 supported by an SO 3, while at corps and army level the staff would have been much larger.
Staff officers made frequent visits forward to the trenches, as they do today, regularly visiting the forward operating bases and going out on a patrol. They were the general’s intelligence gatherers and while they might have looked peculiar on the fire step with their polished boots and red collar patches, their job was as important as that of the company commander.

Because of the rapid expansion of the BEF, staff officers were not fully trained for their roles and had to learn on the job. At the outbreak of war the staff college was closed, because it would be a short war and over by Christmas and didn’t reopen until 1919. Staff schools were set up in France and officers were attached to divisional staffs as “staff learners.” The courses lasted six weeks with a week’s attachment as a “staff learner.” Because experienced staff officers were transferred from the UK to the BEF, this led to confusion and muddle in the home procurement and training units. Many officers were brought out of retirement to plug these gaps and unfortunately, some of them were still fighting the last but one war.

Nevertheless, the British Army was well served by its staff officers and it went on to mount a huge and sustained offensive in 1918, which ejected the German army from France and brought an end to the First World War. It is a pity that the offensive didn’t continue into Germany to ensure its total destruction. It may have saved a lot of lives and bother in the future. But in the general disillusionment after the war and people realised Britain wasn’t a “land fit for heroes,” scapegoats needed to be found. “Bunglers and Butchers” sell books and newspapers and many authors had an axe to grind, particularly if those they were attacking were retired and dead. And if all else fails, just make it up like Alan Clark.

© Blown Periphery 2018

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