First World War Myths Lies and Distortions

Part 6 -  Butchers and Meddlers, The Relationship between the Army and the Politicians

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

“War is too important to be left to the Generals.”

Why should that be so? Is flying an aeroplane too important to be left to the pilot? Is neurosurgery too important to be left to a neurosurgeon? One of our more recent cowardly and despicable Prime Ministers said to his Joint Chiefs of Staff; “You do the fighting, I’ll do the talking,” when they warned him of the likely consequences of de-stabilising Libya. What is it in the politician’s psyche that makes them believe that they know more about a profession, than those who have made it their life’s work? Politicians are reluctant to embark on wars with a result they can’t predict, but when they do, they want to control every aspect of its conduct.

Those who think the military will come to the aid of the civil population, against an oppressive and corrupt government, will be sorely disappointed. Since the Restoration successive governments have ensured that there are constitutional checks and balances to prevent an over-mighty monarch forcing their will on the country. This also includes keeping the military firmly under civilian control. The memories of Cromwell’s major-generals may have faded, but until recently, the annual passing of the Army Act was essential, otherwise the Army would have no purpose to exist. Unfortunately nowadays, the primary role of the military seems it is to protect the government and not the country and its subjects, despite the oath all Service personnel have to take on attestation.

I (your name), swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors and that I will as in duty bound honestly and faithfully defend Her Majesty, her heirs and successors in person, crown and dignity against all enemies and will observe and obey all orders of Her Majesty, her heirs and successors and of the generals and officers set over me.

Irrespective of oaths, the military of this country is totally controlled by the Secretary of State for Defence and senior officers know that their lucrative positions on various boards on retirement, is totally dependent on maintaining good relations with the politicians. The role of a constitutional monarchy is to survive and it would take a very committed and courageous monarch to go head to head with their government. Interestingly, the police only swear an oath of allegiance to Queen Elizabeth II and not her heirs and successors, which may prove interesting as our current monarch inevitably passes on. And unfortunately, many senior officer courses and seminars are run by Common Purpose under differently named delivery agencies.

The German Imperial General Staffs of 1914 operated under no such constraints by their politicians and the German constitution gave the generals almost unfettered power to conduct the war as they saw fit. Historically the defence of Britain had been conducted by the Royal Navy, while the Army was seen as an Imperial police force. It was not highly regarded as Kipling’s poem “Tommy” so eloquently points out and compared to the navy was underfunded, as the Dreadnaughts rumbled down the slipways. But in the first decade of the twentieth century, many began to realise that a war with Germany seemed more likely. Britain could never build up an army large enough to fight a European war, with voluntary enlistment, however, the Expeditionary Force was established to fight a war in Europe or anywhere within the empire if it were deemed necessary.

When Britain declared war against Germany in 1914, the post of Secretary of State for War had been taken over by the Prime Minister, following Seely’s resignation over the Irish Home Rule quandary. Asquith’s Liberal government invited Field Marshal Lord Kitchener to take on the role, a decision that many in the public and press would say was inspired. The politicians tended to think the opposite. Kitchener was a member of the “With the French” group that believed that Britain should join and support the war on the French side. He was used to wielding absolute power and as CinC of the Indian Army he had seen off attempts to meddle in military affairs by the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon. Kitchener had little time for politicians, believing that many of them were a risk to national security and saw no reason to take them into his confidence. “If I tell them anything, they tell their wives, except for Lloyd George who tells someone else’s wife,” he is reported to have said. In fact he detested Lloyd George who had tacked on the name Lloyd to add kudos and Kitchener delighted at calling him “Mr George.”

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Lord Kitchener and the famous recruiting poster

Unfortunately Westminster wasn’t India and Kitchener had many run-ins with the politicians, who took every opportunity to undermine him and the head of the BEF, Lord French disliked Kitchener’s visits to France in full Field Marshal’s uniform. French was also appalled that Kitchener stripped away experienced officers and NCOs in order to train the New Armies. But it was the “Shells Scandal” that completely undermined Kitchener and his relations with the politicians.

In 1915 there was a shortage of shells for artillery pieces on the Western Front, simply because the logistics of the battles of Loos and the Second Battle of Ypres resulted in demand outstripping supply. The prolonged artillery barrages had not been predicted and munitions factories in Britain were not geared up to increase production. The press had a field day, which led to the fall of the Asquith Government and a coalition was put in place. Lloyd George began as Minister of Munitions and became Prime Minister in December 1916.

The media is a fickle mistress that can turn and bite at the drop of a hat. Field Marshal Sir John French gave an interview to The Times (27 March) calling for more ammunition. Lord Northcliffe, the owner of The Times and the Daily Mail, blamed Kitchener for the recent death in action of his nephew. On the basis of an assurance from Kitchener, the Prime Minister, H. H. Asquith, stated in a speech at Newcastle (20 April) that the army had sufficient ammunition. After the failure of the Battle of Aubers Ridge (9 May 1915) The Times war correspondent, Colonel Charles à Court Repington sent a telegram to his newspaper blaming lack of high-explosive shells. French had, despite Repington’s denial of his prior knowledge at the time, supplied him with information, and sent trusted officers (Brinsley Fitzgerald and Freddy Guest) to London to show the same documents to Lloyd George and senior Conservatives Bonar Law and Balfour.

The Times headline (14 May 1915) was: “Need for shells: British attacks checked: Limited supply the cause: A Lesson from France.” It commented “We had not sufficient high explosives to lower the enemy’s parapets to the ground … The want of an unlimited supply of high explosives was a fatal bar to our success”. This clearly pointed the finger of blame at the government. A more sensationalised version of the story was printed in the popular Daily Mail on 21 May, blaming Lord Kitchener, under the headline “The Shells Scandal: Lord Kitchener’s Tragic Blunder”. Lloyd George had to warn Northcliffe that the campaign was counterproductive and creating sympathy for Kitchener.

Understandably Kitchener wanted to let the Shells Scandal drop. Von Donop, Master-General of the Ordnance, demanded an Inquiry to clear his name, but Kitchener persuaded him to withdraw the request as it would have led to French’s dismissal. Although Lord Kitchener remained in office as Secretary of State for War, responsible for training and equipping the volunteer New Armies, he had lost control over munitions production and was increasingly side-lined from control of military strategy. Sir John French was also tarnished by his blatant meddling in politics, a factor which contributed to his enforced resignation in December 1915.

In the midst of his other political and military concerns, Kitchener had devoted personal attention to the deteriorating situation on the Eastern Front. This included the provision of extensive stocks of war material for the Russian armies, which had been under increasing pressure since mid-1915. In May 1916 the Chancellor of the Exchequer Reginald Mckenna suggested that Kitchener head a special and confidential mission to Russia to discuss munition shortages, military strategy and financial difficulties with the Imperial Russian Government and the military high command, which was now under the personal command of Tsar Nicholas II. Both Kitchener and the Russians were in favour of face to face talks and a formal invitation from the Tsar was received on 14 May. Kitchener with a party of officials, military aides and personal servants left London by train for Scotland on the evening of 4 June.

Kitchener sailed from Scrabster to Scapa Flow aboard HMS Oak and transferred to the cruiser HMS Hampshire on 5th June 1915. Shortly before 19:30 hrs the same day, steaming towards the Russian port of Archangel during a Force 9 gale, Hampshire struck a mine laid by the newly launched German U-boat U-75 and sank west of the Orkney Islands. Recent research has set the death toll of those aboard Hampshire at 737. Only twelve survived. Among the dead were all ten members of his entourage. Kitchener was seen standing on the quarterdeck during the approximately twenty minutes that it took the ship to sink. His body was never recovered.

The Dardanelles Campaign

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Map of the landings at Gallipoli

The ill-fated Dardanelles Campaign is a classic example of political primacy over military necessity. In January 1915 the Russians had asked the Allies to mount a campaign against Turkey, to relieve pressure on Russian forces in the Caucuses. Churchill who was First Lord of the Admiralty, had proposed a plan to land forces at Zeebrugge and Antwerp, in order to outflank the Western Front. Realising the huge numbers of troops this would require, estimated at 150,000, Kitchener vetoed the plan. Lord French was also horrified that this plan would divert much-needed troops from the BEF in France.

Churchill then revisited the Russian request and proposed that a purely naval force should mount an attack on the Dardanelles, force the narrows, knock out the Turkish forts, then sally into the Sea of Marmara to bombard Constantinople [Sic]. The idea sounded well on paper as it would involve few troops, satisfy Russian requests and preserve the Western Front as the main land effort. But the naval forces suffered considerable losses, were unable to force the straits or knock out the Turkish forts. The navy demanded troops to augment the plan and Kitchener was forced to accede, as he believed from experience in Egypt and the Sudan, that once a campaign had been started it had to be followed through.

Churchill was adamant that with troops landed at Gallipoli, the plan would succeed and it drew in thousands of British Australian, New Zealand, Indian and French troops and there goes another popular misconception. There are many myths in Australia & New Zealand about the Gallipoli Campaign. The most widely believed myth is that it was a mainly ANZAC affair. In reality the ANZACs were an important but relatively small part of the entirety. The British had contributed 468,000 in the battle for Gallipoli with 33.512 killed, 7,636 missing and 78,000 wounded. The French were next most numerous in total numbers and in casualties. The Anzacs lost 8,000 men in Gallipoli and a further 18,000 were wounded. The reason the French were there was because they didn’t want Britain to extend its zone of influence into the North-eastern Mediterranean, so close to Syria.

The whole campaign was a costly failure and continued to suck in more troops. While the disaster had been instigated by politicians, specifically Churchill, Kitchener caught most of the military and political fall-out. The military’s case was not helped, when the British cabinet saw a letter written by war correspondent Keith Murdoch (father of Rupert Murdoch), accusing everyone in the Dardanelles Campaign of incompetence and mismanagement. Everybody except the Australians obviously. Kitchener’s days were numbered when his old adversary Lord Curzon, was elevated to the role of Lord Privy Seal.

While Kitchener was away on the Gallipoli Peninsular in November 1915, Lord Curzon, Lloyd George and Carson made their moves against the military. Firstly they reduced the powers of Secretary of State for War by stripping away all matters concerning munitions and supply. Lord French was relieved of command of the BEF and Lord Haig was appointed in his place. Kitchener was later drowned on HMS Hampshire and Lloyd George became Secretary of State for War and later Prime Minister.

Embroiled in the Balkans

To the military the main effort would continue to be focused on the Western Front. This was where the vast bulk of the German army was located and that was where Germany would have to be defeated. But the Somme offensive had killed the political appetite for major operations in France, so they looked for other unfortunate diversions. Lloyd George, together with Balfour, who had replaced Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty, came up with the brilliant idea of increasing involvement in the Balkans. Britain was already involved in that theatre, because when Bulgaria entered the war with the Central Powers, the Greek Prime Minister asked for Allied assistance and British and French troops landed at Salonika in 1915. King Constantine of Greece was however, pro-German and he dismissed him Prime Minister and declared Greek neutrality. When the Serbs were defeated by the Austro-Hungarians, the presence of British and French troops in Salonica was pointless.
Field Marshal Sir William Robert Robertson, 1st Baronet was the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) and was appalled by Lloyd George’s plans for expanding operations in the Balkans and wrote to Lord Curzon in 1917:

It would be valuable if you would kindly explain to the Prime Minister (now Lloyd George), during the discussion on the Salonica question what the nature of the Balkan country is. He seems quite unable to envisage it and understand the difficulty of getting heavy artillery forward in an advance and in supplying an army… …the country is, in short, one in which a small army would be murdered and a large one would starve.

The British and French troops in Salonica were placed under a French, unified command and managed to force Bulgaria out of the war in September 1918. The Greeks replaced King Constantine with King Alexander and joined the war on the Allied side. However, Bulgaria would likely have collapsed anyway as German support was withdrawn to fight on the Western Front and the British and French troops in Salonica would have been more use in France.

Bolstering Italy

The Battle of Cambrai was initially very successful for the British and Haig used mass formations of tanks, after recognising the potential at the Battle of the Somme. On 20th November 1917 the British advanced along a six-mile front with nineteen divisions, supported by 378 tanks. They advanced three miles, but the attack petered out, because there were insufficient reserves to capitalise on the gains made. The Germans counter-attacked in December and regained much of the ground they had lost. Where were the follow-on divisions? Many were still disengaging from the Third Battle of Ypres, but a significant number that might have made all the difference at Cambrai were in Italy.

Five British and six French Divisions were moved from the Western Front to bolster Italian forces and prevent a collapse of their army. Italy was a member of the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria before the war, but made it clear they would not go to war with Britain. Probably wise as Britain controlled the Mediterranean with its navy. The Triple Alliance was unpopular with the Italian public and Italy wanted Trieste, Italian speaking but held by Austria after the wars of Italian liberation. Italy joined the war on the Allies side. The Austrians appealed for German support and after the Battle of the Somme Germany sent seven divisions to the Italian front. Germany reasoned that it could knock Italy out of the war and threaten France from Northern Italy. This was unlikely due to the sheer amount of resources that would be required to mount an offensive through the Alps. Additionally, Austria wanted out of the war anyway.

An offensive in November 1917 spearheaded by the Germans pushed the Italians back to the River Paive and requests for British and French help were renewed with urgency. Robertson, CGIS argued that the Italians had sufficient manpower to defend its own borders and the Italian front was a side-line and of no grand strategic importance to the British war effort. Lloyd George overruled his CIGS and the five divisions and heavy guns rattled down through France on the French railways while the Battle of Cambrai was being fought. The British and French troops engaged an Austrian force close to collapse and Trieste was captured not by the Italians but by a landing by the Allied navies on 3rd November 1918.

Divide and Rule

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
David Lloyd George reviewing troops

Lloyd George became increasingly distrustful of Haig but Haig was supported by the CIGS and there was no obvious candidate to replace him. Lloyd George did not believe that the Western Front was the only place to engage the Germans and talked of “knocking away the props,” meaning Turkey, Bulgaria and Austro-Hungary. Unfortunately the main prop was Germany, which would be better served not pouring resources and money into Lloyd George’s “props.” If the Prime Minister could not persuade the generals to divert resources from the Western Front, then he would undermine Haig. The dishonourable Lloyd George was going to attempt to stab his commander-in-chief in the back.

French politics inevitably played a part in these disreputable plans. Haig and Joffre proposed another joint offensive in February of 1917, but French politicians and the public were becoming war-weary with mounting casualty figures for little appreciable gain. It was felt a change at the top was needed, so Joffre was made Marshal of France, a non-job at Versailles and was replaced by General Robert Nivelle who decided to postpone the spring offensive until his own plans were ready. Nivelle had an attractive English wife and spoke the language fluently. He impressed Lloyd George and seduced the cabinet with his charm and opinion that the Western Front should not be the only effort. To rein in Haig, Lloyd George planned to bring the head of the BEF under Nivelle’s command. This was proposed at a cabinet meeting in London on 24th February 1917. Not in attendance were the Secretary of State for War (Lord Derby) and the CIGS. The politicians knew that the King would not approve, so they delayed sending him the notes of the meeting.

During a conference in Calais on 27th February, supposedly called to outline the problems the French rail network was having supporting the war effort, Lloyd George proposed that the BEF should be brought under French Control under Nivelle. Haig would be merely responsible for administration and the discipline of British forces. This plan was clearly unacceptable to Haig and Robertson CIGS and none of this had been discussed with them before the meeting. Lloyd George hoped that Haig and Robertson would resign on the spot but the two battled it out with the politicians. It was finally agreed that Haig would retain command of the BEF, but under French command for the 1917 offensive only. Back in London, Robertson wrote to Haig:

He (Lloyd George) is an awful liar. His story at the war cabinet gave quite the wrong impression this morning. He accused the French of putting forward a monstrous proposal and yet you and I know he was at the bottom of it.

Understandably, Haig never trusted the Prime Minister again, if he ever had done to begin with. The British role in the offensive was that of a subsidiary, mounting a successful offensive around Arras. It proved that the lessons of the Somme had been learned and Nivelle’s offensive was a costly failure for the French forces.

Lloyd George continued to undermine his CIGS by seeking military advice from elsewhere, advice that Sir John French, still smarting from Haig having replaced him and Sir Henry Wilson, a clever, sociable man whom the military vehemently distrusted as they regarded him as a devious schemer, were pleased to give. Even so, Lloyd George could not prevail on them to agree that the war against Germany should not be the British main effort. The Prime Minister decided on a different tack and to prevent as he saw it, Haig from squandering more lives, he would not give him any more lives to squander.

He could not get rid of Haig so Lloyd George chipped away at his supporting generals. Lieutenant General Kiggell had been Chief of the General Staff since Haig was appointed. The Prime Minister and his henchmen discovered that Kiggell was suffering from nervous exhaustion and blocked Haig’s choice of replacement, putting forward their own man, Major General Richard Butler. Charteris head of intelligence was forced out in favour of Brigadier General Cox and the Quartermaster General Maxwell was also forced out.

By the beginning of 1918 the Germans realised that the war was lost. The Royal Navy blockade was biting deep and sapping the will of the civilian population. The German Imperial staff knew that with the Americans now committed, the armies they faced would only grow stronger. France was still in the war and the British were approaching their pinnacle in terms of numbers and training. While they could not win, the Germans hoped for a peace on their terms and decided to go on the offensive. Unable to source replacement troops and yet forced by the politicians to man more of the front, Haig was forced to disband divisions and restructure other units. Brigades went from four battalions to three so each division consisted of nine battalions instead of twelve.

As the generals had predicted and Lloyd George refused to believe, the Germans went on the offensive in March 1918. They moved divisions from the Eastern Front, freed up by the treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the aim of driving to the Channel Ports and splitting the British from the French. The offensive fell on the weakened British Third and Fifth Armies in the Somme area and then the Second Army in Flanders during April. The British Army had been spread too thinly and was forced back. But although the elastic was stretched, it never broke. Because of the blockade the German motor vehicles ran with no tyres and could not resupply its forward troops on the French roads.

The Germans had been told the British were starving, but their morale crumbled when they overran supply depots stocked with rations they could only dream about. And the British kept fighting, they held the German Stormtroopers and would then go on the offensive to win the war. A greater man than Lloyd George might have shown the humility to admit he had been wrong; instead he blamed the generals for lack of preparedness. There were 191 German Divisions pitted against 165 Allied. The Prime Minister misled the house regarding troop numbers in France and there were 92,000 combat ready troops in Britain that Lloyd George had refused to send to France so they would not be “squandered.” The Army had had enough and some very senior officers weaponised the press to attack the government.

This was a truly shameful episode in the relations between the government and the military. Lloyd George continued to attack Haig long after the war in his memoires and other writing, and indeed, some of the mud stuck and still does to this day. Personally I believe that history has been rather unkind to Lord Haig, whereas Lloyd George remains a darling to many in the political spectrum. In September 1936, he went to Germany to talk with Hitler. Hitler said he was pleased to have met “the man who won the war”; Lloyd George was moved, probably because his ego was fluffed, and called Hitler “the greatest living German”. Lloyd George also visited Germany’s public works programmes and was impressed. On his return to Britain, he wrote an article for The Daily Express praising Hitler, stating: “The Germans have definitely made up their minds never to quarrel with us again.”

After retiring from the service, Lord Haig devoted the rest of his life to the welfare of ex-servicemen, making many speeches (which did not come easily to him) and answering all letters in his own hand. Haig pushed for the amalgamation of organisations, quashing a suggestion of a separate organisation for officers, into The British Legion which was founded in June 1921.

© Blown Periphery 2018

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