Home Land War John Terraine: Essays on Leadership and War 1914-18 British Military Leadership In The First World War

British Military Leadership In The First World War

john-terraineJohn Terraine, Lecture given in 1991
This is a subject which has been steeped in misunderstanding, prejudice and pure mythology for over seventy years and largely remains so to this day, as certain recent publications reveal. The image of The Donkeys is firmly planted in many people's minds. That was the thoughtful title of a book by Mr Alan Clark (later a Conservative minister), published in 1961 and consisting almost entirely of vitriolic condemnation of the two Commanders-in-Chief of the 1914-18 British Expeditionary Force: Field-Marshal Sir John French and Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig.

The title was supposed to be taken from a conversation between General Ludendorff and General Max Hoffman, which according to Mr Clark went as follows:

Ludendorff: 'The English soldiers fight like lions.'

Hoffman: 'True. But don't we know that they are lions led by donkeys?'

Curiously enough, when pressed. Mr Clark was unable to offer any source for this reported conversation. Even more curiously, the image of donkeys and lions turns out to have a number of sources:

  • the London Times in 1870 used exactly that formula for the French soldiers defeated by the Prussians: 'lions led by donkeys';
  • in 1916 a Prussian Guardsman wrote home: 'our officers are regular donkeys';
  • in 1917 the mayor of Poplar referred to the British as 'a nation of lions governed by asses'; and
  • in April 1918 - mark the date - Princess Blucher, an Englishwoman married to a Prussian aristocrat and living in Berlin noted with great pleasure what she was told by members of the German General Staff: 'The English generals are wanting in strategy. We should have no chance if they possessed as much science as their officers and men had of courage and bravery. They are lions led by donkeys.'

In April 1918 the lions led by their donkeys were on the point of bringing the most powerful offensive of the whole war to an absolute standstill without achieving any strategic objective whatever. And under the leadership of the same donkeys they were soon to pass to their own most triumphant offensive, ending with a German delegation crossing the lines with a while flag! Not bad work for donkeys!

As for Hoffman, I don't think we can rate his opinion as significant since he spent his whole war on the Eastern Front and never saw a British soldier or a British general. Yet the image persists:

  • John Keegan in The New Statesman in 1979, referred to 'that hideously unattractive group, the British generals of the First World War' (he hasn't changed his mind);
  • The same enlightened publication, in 1979, accused me of fantastic philistinism for suggesting 'that generals who presided over the demolition of a whole British generation are something more respectable than idiots';
  • A letter in The Spectator in 1980 said that "with the honourable exceptions of Plumer; and Allenby, it is difficult to find one Great War general who answers to the adjective 'intelligent'";
  • The magazine War Monthly (later called Military History and now defunct) in April 1982, in an article by a Mr. Peter Chatt fiercely attacking Lord Haig, quoted an unnamed reference saying: 'It is hard for a connoisseur of bad generalship, surveying the grey wastes of World War I, to single out any one commander as especially awful. There were dozens of them on both sides', which, as a sample of pompous, mindless arrogant rubbish takes some beating!
  • But not to be outdone, in July of the same year, The Army Quarterly carried an article by a Mr. Keith Hammond entitled 'Haig - A Suitable Case for Treatment?', seriously suggesting that the man who led the British Army in its most majestic series of victories was mad;
  • In 1988 we had G. de Groot's biography of Haig, and now in 1991 Dennis Winter's "Haig's Command: A Reassessment" - both books demonstrating that prejudice and mythology die hard!

Naturally, what they thrive on is generalisation, the broad sweep of the brush, this catchy phrase. Fair comparisons, statistical evidence, analysis of individuals, none of these is favoured; they spoil the myth.

So let us subject some members of John Keegan's 'hideously unattractive group' to closer examination. Who does he mean? It is safe to say he means above all the Commanders-in-Chief and Army Commanders on the Western Front; the latter are less familiar than the former, so let us consider them. We have already heard mention of two: Plumer and Allenby; let us look at them more closely.

General (later Field-Marshal) Sir Herbert Plumer commanded the Second Army from 6 May 1915 until the end of the war, with a brief intermission in Italy from November 1917 to March 1918 (as C-in-C). Like many British senior officers of the period, he had had the enlightening experience of commanding colonials in South Africa - very educative! The Spectator called him, in 1904, 'emphatically a soldier's soldier' and his latest biography, by Geoffrey Powell (an excellent book), is entitled Plumer, the Soldier's General (1990); and so he remained, although Haig, in 1917, also called Plumer 'his most reliable Army Commander'. His affection for the troops under him and his care for them were well known. He was often called 'Daddy' Plumer, and he certainly did look like a sort of ideal granddad, with pink cheeks, a fluffy white moustache and a little pot belly. But appearances are deceptive, as the Germans discovered. Plumer was a first-class Army Commander, a first-class practitioner of battle, a master of the set-piece (like Montgomery) as his 1917 victories at Messines (June), Menin Road and Polygon Wood (September) and Broodseinde (October) show - the last called by the Germans 'the black day'. In a war described as a 'staff officer's war', in which the staff at times became exceedingly unpopular, it is interesting to note that Plumer and his own Chief of Staff, Sir Charles Harington, insisted that the staff of the Second Army must always be the servant of the fighting troops - a fact which was readily apparent and much appreciated by all. I have never heard a bad word about Plumer; how he or Harington can be called 'hideously unattractive' passes my understanding.

What about Allenby? He is an interesting case. His fame rests on his achievement in Palestine in 1917 and 1918, and his overthrow of the Turks in a dramatic swift-moving campaign. This seems to be in marked contrast with the 'static' and always bloody Western Front, and Allenby has is acclaimed accordingly. It is a point of view that fails to note certain important facts.

First, in his final attack he enjoyed a numerical superiority of about two to one and an even greater advantage in all materiel. Secondly, in Palestine he was fighting a secondary enemy: the Turks. They were tough soldiers, hard to beat - but nothing like so hard as Germans, and exhausted by nearly eight continuous years of war. On the Western Front, against Germans, Allenby had not greatly distinguished himself. His one big battle - Arras - was a grim and costly business. The only outstanding success was the brilliant storming of Vimy Ridge by Byng's Canadians - but they belonged to Horne's First Army. Thirdly, mobile warfare had returned to the Western Front also in 1918; it was no longer 'static'. The great contrast is only achieved by false comparison. Fourthly, Allenby himself had no doubt that the Western Front was the place to seek a decision, whatever the difficulties. We need to take all this into account in assessing Allenby; the mere fact that he moved fast is not enough. What it amounts to is this: Allenby's striking successes were won on a secondary front. In this they resemble those of the British generals of the second world war, of whom only one - Lord Gort, for about three weeks in May 1940 - ever held high command on the main front against the enemy. Allenby, like O'Connor in the next war, shows that dazzling success on a secondary front is no proof of sufficient quality on the main front.

I mentioned Byng: General Sir Julian Byng was another British officer who became well acquainted with colonials in South Africa, and this stood him in good stead when he went to command the Canadian Corps in 1916. Byng is the only one of the Army Commanders whose appearance might justify the phrase 'hideously unattractive', because in all photographs he seems to be glaring with a menacing scowl into the camera. I say 'might' justify - if you judge by appearances only. As Jeffery Williams points out in his excellent biography Byng of Vimy (1983), the thing about Byng was that he hated anything smacking of pomp, ceremony or publicity - and he hated being photographed. Hence the scowl. Byng was probably the most informal of our top generals and this, of course, suited the Canadians well. They loved him, and when he became Governor-General of Canada later the CEF veterans proved it by the warmth of their welcome to him wherever he went. So don't go by appearances; scowl or no scowl, Byng was a lovely man, and a fine general.

When Allenby went to Palestine, Byng took the Third Army. He pioneered predicted shooting and the massed tank attack at Cambrai in 1917, In 1918 his Army 'stood off' the great German offensive, and then became the second prong of the spearhead of Haig's offensive.

In 1917, at Vimy, Byng came under General Sir Henry Horne, commander of the First Army. Horne was another who shunned publicity. He was a quiet, retiring, competent Gunner. In the Second World War, I think one might match him with Sir Miles Dempsey who commanded the Second Army in 1944-45, another able but retiring officer; such men never find the limelight, they are often forgotten, but Heaven help the Army that doesn't have them. Unfortunately, their shyness means that we don't know half as much about them as we should, and unless people like Jeffrey Williams come along, we never shall.

Others are more fortunate - the limelight comes to them. That was the case with Sir Henry Rawlinson, who commanded the Fourth Army. Rawlinson got off to a bad start on the Somme on 1 July 1916, that terrible day which I sometimes think is the only date in the Great War that people know. But the war changed all the time, and most of the men in it were changing all the time. Rawlinson, whose set-piece daylight attack on 1 July was a disaster, tried a dawn attack on 14 July - and captured the German front positions with very small loss.

And then once more came the ding-dong of attrition - the hard fight the German Army always made of it in this phase of the war. But Rawlinson was learning all the time, and in 1918 he put his lessons to good use. Beginning once again on the Somme, on 8 August 1918, his Fourth Army became the first spearhead of the final offensive, in the course of which it engaged 67 German divisions (two of them five times) and took over 75,000 prisoners. I think comment is superfluous.

Two more Army Commanders must be mentioned. Sir William Birdwood was the English officer who had the hard task of commanding the Australians. No one, I think, claims military genius for Birdwood - but he had genius of another kind. He made himself liked by the tough, proud individualists of the First Australian Imperial Force - they even paid him the rare compliment of calling him 'Mr. Birdwood'. He seemed to know every man in the Army Corps - and they certainly knew him. When he heard that he was to be promoted to command an Army he told the Australian Minister of Defence: 'I am prepared to be relieved of the command of my army rather than be cut off from my old comrades.' He was persuaded to take the promotion when it was pointed out to him that otherwise he would be blocking promotion for an Australian officer. Was that 'hideously unattractive', I wonder?

And then there was Sir Charles Monro, who left the Western Front in 1916 to become C-in-C, India. There it fell to him to create the Indian army with which Allenby in Palestine and General Marshall in Mesopotamia won their victories. In fact Monro in 1916-18 did what Auchinleck did for Mountbatten and Slim between 1942-45. Monro has been called the best C-in-C of British India, even including Lord Roberts - which suggests a touch of class!

I could go on; there were corps commanders, like Lord Cavan (XIV Corps) or Sir Claude Jacob (II Corps) or Sir Ivor Maxse (XVIII Corps) or the two first-rate officers from the Dominions, the Canadian Sir Arthur Currie and the Australian Sir John Monash. There were all the divisional commanders, not all excellent by any means - this was a weak area in the British Army - but including many very able men, like Tudor of the 9th Division and another forward-looking Gunner, Babington of the 23rd, regarded by the other ranks as 'a decent old bird' because of his pleasant, informal manner, but who nevertheless made his division one of the smartest and most efficient in the Army.

And there was Boyd of the 46th, who failed the entrance exam for Woolwich, joined the Army in the ranks, fought in South Africa in the Devonshire Regiment, took a commission, and in September 1918 led his North Midland Territorial division to smash through the Hindenburg Line, taking 4,000 prisoners and 70 guns for a loss of less than 1,000 in one of the finest feats of the war, indeed, in our whole military history. And so on, and so on...

I am not going to discuss the Commanders-in-Chief. Sir John French's latest biographer agrees that he was not up to the job, and that is the general verdict of history. What I think of Sir Douglas Haig is well-covered in my book: Douglas Haig: the Educated Soldier (1963). He is to me one of only three British generals who have encountered the main body of a main European enemy (the others being the Dukes of Marlborough and Wellington) and the results speak for themselves.

But one name I must add to this list: Field Marshal Sir William Robertson, the only man to go from private to Field-Marshal in the Army's entire history. And this was no matter of mere honorary rank conferred as a kindness: Robertson rose to the Army's highest and most demanding position at the height of its most demanding war. I find it difficult to express the quality of character that enabled an ex-gardener's boy to do that in an Army whose officers in 1914 were about 75 per cent from public schools. I will be first to agree that Sir William Robertson was not in any degree 'cuddly' - best friends would admit that he was always rather light on charm. But clearly there was a rare fibre in him; I think if we are going to call that fibre 'hideously unattractive' we must stop talking about soldiers altogether.

This sort of misleading generalisation is only part of a larger one - well expressed by a leading academic historian. Professor Sir Llewellyn Woodward, who didn't think much of what he saw of the Army in the First World War: discussing with an Oxford colleague in 1919 why British leadership had been so bad, the colleague soon found the answer: 'the army was "run by pass men" ' (a 'Pass' degree, of course, was the minimum educational standard required at Oxford and Cambridge to allow the pursuit of serious activities eg rowing, riding, rugby, ragging the swots etc). So here we have an extension of the 'hideously unattractive' image: they were 'all "pass men" ' - elsewhere called 'a custom-bound clique'. But then the Professor spoils it all: he lumps in the Allied generals also, and adds: 'Fortunately for the Allies the enemy generals were equally obtuse,' and there we have it in a nutshell: All the generals, all over the world, in that generation, 'pass men'. This obviously stretches credulity to its limits.

Let us consider the idea: this includes Germany: where the officer-corps was still dominated by the aristocracy (despite intense industrialisation and a great expansion of population and army). For example, 52 per cent of officers of rank of colonel and above in 1913 were aristocrats and in 1909 four-fifths of the entry to the General Staff (considered the apex of military professionalism) were aristocrats. Not that statistics were all that important, because whatever the social origin, the imprint was aristocratic; in other words the whole German Army was dominated by aristocracy - and there was no possibility of a 'Wully' Robertson rising to the top. But apparently, the French were 'pass men' too, though in their Army to be an aristocrat was positively a disadvantage. For example, General Joffre, a staunch Republican, was openly praised for broad-mindedness in giving commands to aristocrats. Contrary to many suppositions, the officer ranks in Imperial Russia were not a class privilege - in fact about 40 per cent of regimental officers up to colonel were sons of peasants. In America, of course, there were no aristocrats - but senior command was very much the preserve of the products of West Point and Annapolis, both establishments of high educational reputation. Yet all these people - to say nothing of the Austro-Hungarians, the Italians, the Serbs, the Turks - all 'pass men', all at once! This is simply not a reasonable historical proposition; in fact I consider it merely silly.

How then should we approach British generalship, British military leadership?

Perhaps it is best to begin by putting the questions: 'What is the function of a general? What should we expect of him?' I think a perfectly clear and complete answer has been provided by a general whose professional skill has never been disputed, and who was also, by common consent, humane, concerned, compassionate - Field-Marshal Lord 'Bill' Slim of Burma fame. Speaking of our early defeats in Malaya and Burma in 1942 and 1943, Slim said: 'Defeat is bitter. Bitter to the common soldier, but trebly bitter to his general. The soldier may comfort himself with the thought that, whatever the result, he has done his duty faithfully and steadfastly, but the commander has failed in his duly if he has not won victory - for that is his duty. He has no other comparable to it.'

And that, surely, is true; that is what entitles a general to his badges of rank, the respect that is paid to him, and the salary he receives: that his professional competence should give his country victory - or at the very least, stave off the worst consequences of defeat.

In this fundamental requirement, it is a simple historical fact that the British generals of the First World War - 'unattractive' or not, 'pass men' or not, 'impregnably stupid' (as others have said) or not - did not fail in their duty. It was not a British delegation which offered the while flag of surrender in November 1918. Britain suffered no army of occupation. No British Government was forced to sign a treaty like the one that Germany forced on Russia at Brest-Litovsk, or on Romania at Bucharest. The British generals had done their duty and won victory. That is the only proper, only sensible starting-point for an examination of their quality. I say 'starting-point', because one has then to ask whether the method by which they did their duty and gained the victory nullified it and made it worthless - indeed, this has been said very often. Is it true? The only possible way of answering that question is by comparing their performances with that of their contemporaries. If it appears that, at the same time, in similar circumstances, other generals, other leaders displayed better methods, then the criticism would hold that, although the British generals had performed what was required of them, they had done it the wrong way. And how does one judge the right or wrong way? Obviously, one judges in relation to the task and the cost - above all to the human cost, to casualties.

There are few more emotive subjects than the casualties of the Great War - certainly here in Britain, few subjects more confused or calculated to confuse. Casualties mean death, often in horrible and painful forms, dreadful to see, sickening to read about; or wounds, also horrible, some permanent, blindness, paralysis, loss of limbs, wounds sometimes so bad one cannot help thinking death would have been better; psychological injury, sometimes also permanent, madness, intermittent breakdown, intellectual incapacity due to shock. And all of these on a terrible scale, measured by hundreds of thousands of human beings, even millions. And there straight away we come to the only language by which these dreadful matters can be evaluated: statistics - the cold, unfeeling arithmetical symbols which stand for the crashed, blasted bodies, the screams of pain, the grief of bereaved families, the waste of promise. But statistics are what we have to use - they are all we have if we want to comprehend the subject. We just have to make the effort of imagination to try to convert the long rows of numerals and the percentages back to the flesh and blood they once were. And when we do that, we find that there is nothing unique about the British experience in the Great War, indeed, in a grim passage of the world's history, it may even be said that the British got off lightly. Not only that, but we find that the 1914-1918 war itself was not the uniquely destructive event that is sometimes supposed.

We shall never know just how many people were killed as a direct cause of the war, a consensus of opinion holds to a figure of about 13 or 13.5 million (which is of course, unimaginable; no one can imagine even one million of anything), but that is our yardstick - that figure of 13 with six noughts after it; it is a dreadful figure but it is not unique. Thus, the Thirty Years War, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, is believed to have killed some 8 million people in Germany alone (and populations then were far smaller than in the 20th century; it was convincingly said that the effects of the war could still be seen in Germany right up to this century, 300 years later); and in the Second World War it has been reliably stated that the military dead of the Soviet Union alone amounted to about 13 million, ie about the same as the total for all belligerents in the Great War. The full total for the Second World War is somewhere near 55 million.

This, at any rate, is something that statistics can do: they can establish proportions and relations, they can offer perspective. It is important, when we feel our emotions rightly swelling over the losses of 1914-18, to remember that in 1939-45 the world losses were probably over four times as many. Immediately this is said, I think we begin to travel towards a realistic perspective for the British experience - and therefore a proper criterion for British generals. One thing quickly becomes apparent: There is no point in comparing British generals in the two wars - the British task was entirely different, which is why the loss of life was so different: about 350,000 in 1939-45 and about 750,000 in 1914-18. I shall return to this contrast later on; what concerns us now is the 750,000 - that is the UK figure; the Empire figure is 1 million. Does this figure of 750,000 represent a particular fate of the British Army, then due to incompetent handling by its generals? That is really what this whole subject boils down to, I think; and it is here that the confusion really lies, a confusion which unfortunately, as I said, can only be dispelled by the statistics, the most crucial of which are now to be examined.

The casualty statistics of the Great War, looked at carefully, tell us a great deal about that sad episode in history, but virtually nothing about the quality of British leadership, of British generals. The statistics show that the British experience was entirely normal, that the British losses in great battles were generally about the same as anyone else's. They show exactly what any unprejudiced person would expect: the British generals had their bad days and their good days, were sometimes lucky, sometimes not. We all know - shall we ever be allowed to forget? - that 1 July 1916 was a bad day. In fact, it was one of the very worst in the Army's whole history - our casualties on that day were 57,470, of whom nearly 20,000 were dead, and the gains were small. It was a black day indeed. But surely the thing to remember is that it was unique - there was no other day like it - it was entirely abnormal - a freak. 1 July 1916 was, of course, the first day of the Battle of the Somme; there were 141 more days to go - a grim, grinding business, during which the British Army made its acquaintance with the war of attrition which the French Army had been experiencing all that year. By the end of the Battle of the Somme, British losses were 415,000 which means that the daily rate of loss was 2,950. That was the norm - it compares with 4,070 a day in the 39 days of the Battle of Arras in 1917; 2,121 a day in the 105 days of 'Third Ypres' (the Battle of Passchendaele); 3,645 a day in the '100 days' of the victorious final offensive of 1918. These averages show how extraordinary that 1st July in 1916 really was - a combination of mistakes at all levels and sheer bad luck. But every army had its bad times. The British had the worst single day. But what about the worst week? There was that week in June 1916 when the Austro-Hungarian Army had 280,000 casualties - just one week. If we want to look at a bad fortnight, we should pay attention to the last fortnight in August 1914 (actually 16 days) when the French Army lost 211,000 officers and men. There was never anything like that in the British Army's annals - we lost less than 100,000 in the whole of 1914. Thus every army had its awful times: the Germans admit to 1,400,000 casualties in the year 1916; but their worst time was six weeks in March and April 1918 when they lost nearly 350,000, a loss rate of about 8,600 a day. For a really horrible year, we have to look at Russia in 1915: something like 2 million casualties.

The point I am trying to make is that casualties are not at all revealing about the British performance or British generals - they only show that British soldiers and British generals belong to the human race and not to some species of mythical supermen.

And what about the task? The famous French Marshal Turenne once said: 'Speak to me of a general who has made no mistakes in war, and you speak of one who has seldom made war'. To me, the wonder is not that the British generals of the Great War made mistakes - it was inevitable in all armies - but that they did as well as they did. Field-Marshal Sir John French had never commanded anything larger than a cavalry division in war (about 6,000 men); his successor, Sir Douglas Haig, had never commanded anything larger than a 'column' (about 3,000 men) in war - yet when Haig took over from French he inherited an army of over a million which rose to over two million, (more than any population unit in the United Kingdom except Greater London). Even in peacetime there were only three officers in the whole Army who had held command of an Army Corps: Sir John French, Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien and Sir Douglas Haig. In any case, only one formed Army Corps existed (compared with 20 French and 35 German Corps).

Evidently, there was a most serious lack of experience of handling large bodies of men (which is quite different from sand-table exercises or war-games) which could be compensated by intelligence, character, and experience in the field. This is, in fact, the crux of the whole story. The British Army, from C-in-C to drummer-boy, had to be formed and trained in the field, in the face of a powerful, skilful, well-equipped and determined army - the best army in the world at that time. It is asking a lot.

The small size of the pre-1914 British Army in fact seriously affected the entire British war effort. It not only robbed British generals of necessary training; the small size also robbed the New Armies and Territorials of the regimental officers and NCOs they needed for their training; it robbed the whole Army of munitions because the factories to supply a large army did not exist; and, above all, it robbed Britain of an independent strategy - which is why a great deal of criticism of British generals is quite pointless. This was a coalition war, and the senior partner of the coalition in the West was France; the main front of the war was where the main body of the main enemy was - in France. Until July 1916 the main body of the main enemy on the main front was engaged by the French, and the casualty figures reflect this: by December 1915, French casualties amounted to just under two million; British casualties (including Gallipoli and other sideshows) were just over half a million. The lengths of front held also reflect the weight of the effort: at the end of 1914 the BEF held 24 miles out of about 450; at the end of 1915, about 40 miles. I think these figures make it quite obvious who was going to be in control of strategy - clearly the French High Command (just as naval affairs were under the control of the British Admiralty, for the same reason). Unfortunately, there were many who never understood the constraint that this imbalance placed upon the British commanders. In January 1915, for example, we find Lloyd George plaintively asking his friend Churchill: 'Are we really bound to hand over the ordering of our troops to France as if we were her vassal?' The answer, of course, was 'Yes - until you can match her effort'. And this, whether they liked it or not, very quickly became apparent at the 'sharp end', to the generals concerned.

So we find Haig, very shortly after taking over the command-in-chief, telling the Head of the French Mission at GHQ to say to General Joffre, the French Commander-in-Chief: 'I am not under General Joffre's orders, but that would make no difference, as my intention is to carry out Gen. Joffre's wishes on strategical matters as if they were orders'.

In view of the disparity of effort, this was the only possible policy, but to this day there are many who cannot grasp it. And as long as there was reasonable trust and cordiality on both sides, as there was between Haig and Joffre and later Haig and Foch, the policy worked out well enough. It broke down in 1917, when Nivelle replaced Joffre, and the atmosphere of trickery - due largely to Lloyd George - replaced the trust. It was restored when Petain took over, but in 1918, when Petain's nerve broke, Haig recognised that there would have to be a Supreme Commander of the Allies - but he also recognised that this would still have to be a Frenchman.

What makes this perception so remarkable is that by then the whole Western Front emphasis had changed. For what had happened in July 1916 was simply this: after 23 months of war, for the first lime in its history, the British Army assumed the burden of fighting the main body of the main enemy in a European war. The Duke of Marlborough and the Duke of Wellington had held supreme command of the coalition armies with which they fought, but their British component was always pretty small. Haig did not hold supreme command, but his army engaged the enemy's main body for the rest of the war, with two brief intermissions, thus: in the Battle of the Somme in 1916, the BEF engaged 95.5 identified German divisions out of 125 on the Western Front. In the Battles of Arras and Ypres in 1917, the BEF engaged 131 divisions out of 137. In the West in 1918, when the Germans attacked the British front, they threw 109 divisions against Haig's 60; when Haig launched his final offensive in August, he had 59 divisions which met and defeated 99 German divisions, some of whom were encountered twice, some three times, some even four or five times.

That year, with its great defensive victories in March and April, and the triumphant final offensive of August to November which brought about the Armistice, was in my opinion the 'finest hour' beyond any comparison of the British Army. I cannot see how its commanders can be separated from its achievement. But of course, the cost was high - during that period from July 1916 to November 1918, the British Army in France had over two million casualties (just about the same number as the French in 1914 and 1915, when they were engaging the enemy's main body). In the next war, it was the turn of the Russians to do that, between 1941-45, as I have said, it cost the Soviet Army about 13 million in dead alone.

In both wars, the German Army proved to be very hard to beat. In the Second World War, the British did not see very much of it, which accounts for their much lower casualties; but in the Great War, for the only time in their history, they fought the German main body and beat it, and as I have stated, if that had not cost us appalling casualties as it had the French and as it would the Russians, it would have been a miracle requiring, supernatural explanation. The disciplines of coalition war pressed hard on the British Army between 1914 and 1918: they compelled it into actions for which it was not ready and not equipped in 1915; they forced it into a leading role in 1916, before it was really fit for that; and in 1917 they forced it into strategies in which the British Command did not believe, and which cost the Army dear. All this came as an unwelcome surprise, but in truth that pales into insignificance beside the real burden of novelty which that unfortunate generation of generals had to bear.

It is impossible, in my opinion, to compare it usefully with any other, because no other generation faced such a catalogue of innovation as:

  • the impact of the internal combustion engine, introducing above all air power, and on land mechanised transport, armoured cars, tanks (the war thus became the first mechanic's war, requiring entirely new skills, new apparatus and equipment, and creating new strains, for example, on roads etc.);
  • the revolution in communication, creating the vast complex telephone network with deep buried cables, and introducing wireless telegraphy and radio telephony; and radio interception (forerunner of D/F and ULTRA in the Second World War).

This was the first war of

  • massed modern artillery, the first to use predicted shooting, and the first to develop modern fire control techniques (revived in 1942);
  • automatic weapons, especially machine guns, and the first to devise counter-machine gun tactics (the British army captured 29,000 of them in battle in 1918);
  • poison gas (no fewer than 63 different kinds in use by 1918);
  • petroleum flame projectors - what would later be known as napalm;

and so on, and so on.

And for the British generals in particular this was the first war of the masses, with all that that means in the way of transportation, feeding, housing, medical services and welfare. In fact, no generation has ever faced such a technological onslaught, such a surge of innovation and new techniques.

Except in the obviously highly significant fields of nuclear physics, electronic and aircraft design, the Second World War cannot compare - indeed, much of it was spent re-learning the lessons of the Great War. Technology between 1914 and 1918 made gigantic strides, but in two vital respects it just fell short of what was needed, and a second generation would be required for fruition. These were:

  • first, mobility - conferred on armies from time immemorial by the horse (and the French, German and Russian armies were still largely horse-drawn in 1939-45). But the horse was now no longer viable on modern battlefield and horsepower in 1914-18 really meant tanks, which were always to few and feeble: so generals had to make war in effect without a mobile arm, without an arm of exploitation - a most serious lack.
  • the second lack was control; despite immense progress in communication conferred by telephone and wireless, control in battle virtually lapsed. It was in fact the only war ever fought without voice control. Even platoon commanders had difficulty in exercising control in battle; generals were powerless just when they were wanted most. What they needed was the walkie-talkie - what they had was a telephone line, probably broken in three places.

Taking all these things into account, and taking into account also the undoubtedly conservative and traditionalist upbringing of most generals, it is to my mind staggering to observe how well they coped with it all. Behind the bristling moustaches and the granite jaws there was obviously a surprisingly high degree of broad-minded flexibility, an unexpected adaptability to change, readiness to accept and use novelties absolutely contrary to the normally-accepted image.

It is perfectly clear no 'donkeys' could have absorbed this deluge of blinding science and directed it into that succession of proficient victories which ended the war in 1918. It was in that year that the real qualities of the British Army - which was by then, as Lord Esher said, 'the people in uniform' - were displayed from top to bottom.

In that last '100 days' Haig's armies captured 188,700 prisoners and 2,840 guns; all the other Allies, French, Americans, Belgian together captured 196,700 prisoners and 3,770 guns. These, also, are statistics that cannot be argued with; they are the statistics of absolute victory, the proof that the British military leadership was performing its highest duty.

John Terraine

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Last Updated ( Saturday, 12 March 2011 17:55 )  

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