The articles that made up 'Leadership & War' were edited by Ann Clayton, in 1998 the Honorary Editor of Stand To! the Journal, The Western Front Association with an introduction by Correlli Barnett, the newly appointed Honorary President, The Western Front Association.
'Leadership & War' was published in September 1998 by the Trustees of The Western Front Association and distributed free of charge to the members of The Western Front Association.
For more than seventy years the Great War has served in British memory as the national 'wooden-leg', conveniently excusing the industrial stagnation and the disastrously feeble foreign policy of Baldwin's and Chamberlain's era, and accounting for Britain's later diminishment in the Second World War and after into the role of impoverished American satellite. Indeed, the Great War, and above all the Western Front, have provided a seductive explanation for Britain's entire twentieth-century decline from world-imperial power to offshore European island-state. For was not the War the fatal turning-point?
Yet this national memory - or national myth - is flatly contradicted by the facts of 1918, when a British army of a million-and-a half soldiers stood triumphant on the battlefield before a German enemy pleading for an armistice; when the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force were the most powerful of their kind in the world; when a wartime industrial revolution had reached its apogee; and when Britain herself had survived the War virtually without damage (except for the loss of merchant ships).
How and why, then, did the War come to be remembered by the British as a catastrophe, so explaining their later descent from greatness? The answer lies in the accompanying legend of 'The Lost Generation' of young men: above all, of public-school and Oxbridge officers, a spring of supposed future national vigour now for ever dried up. Yet the United Kingdom's losses were in proportion to population only half those of France and considerably less than Germany's.
The truth is that in regard to the Great War the British nation has chosen to harp on grief and loss, rather as Queen Victoria chose to cherish for decades her bereavement at the death of Prince Albert. The nation has chosen to harp on military setbacks rather than on undoubted victories. It has chosen to regard the British offensives on the Western Front, along with the sacrifice of the dead, the entire War indeed, as 'futile'. Even in the 1990s, whenever newspapers or television programmes commemorate the anniversary of some great battle of the War, the emphasis always remains on the horrors of the trenches, on the casualty lists, on the soldiers as 'victims' (think of the recent uproar over a handful of men shot for alleged cowardice out of the more than five million who served on the Western Front over four years), and finally on the alleged 'futility' of it all.
In other words, the British-reaction to the War has always been lachrymosely emotional. Moreover, this emotionalism has been infused by a sense of sheer moral outrage that these terrible experiences, these losses, should have occurred to young Britons, and, even more unacceptably, to middle- and upper-class Britons as well as working-class. Neither French nor German war literature, though graphic with the terrors and squalor of battlefields like Verdun, has quite this strain of moral indignation. After all, for the French and Germans, war - mass continental war - was simply war, a well known and many times repeated manifestation of the human condition.
In contrast, the British - and especially the intelligentsia - have never been able to accept that the frightful battles and terrible casualties of the Great War, the long years of stalemate and mutual attrition, were simply the inevitable consequences of industrialised warfare between equally balanced alliances. Instead, somebody must be to blame. And who else but the British army's leadership?
Hence has followed the all-too-successful scapegoating of the generals and the staffs, with Field Marshal Sir Douglas (later Earl) Haig as the principal villain, even though he just happened in 1918 to win a decisive victory over the main body of the German army.
The scapegoating began with the trench memoirs and novels of the late 1920s and early 1930s. It continued with the glib critiques of military commentators like Basil Liddell-Hart and the self-exculpating and mendacious memoirs of David Lloyd George. The same hackneyed theme was exploited yet again by post-1945 historians of the War like Alan The Donkeys Clark and Leon In Flanders Fields Woolf, and of course by mere ravers spluttering with rage who I will not name because we all know them well. The theme provides journalists and television producers with a ready cliché to trot out whenever there is an anniversary of some major battle to commemorate - though never, of course, a clear-cut triumph like 8 August 1918, for that would upset the myth.
The attraction of thus indicting the army's leadership is obvious. It saves the indicter from having to confront the real and inescapable dilemmas of the War - dilemmas arising from the hard facts of politics, of strategy and of the then state of military technology. It can therefore be said that the majority of English-speaking writers on the Great War, from the trench memorialists onwards to present-day novelists, stand convicted of intellectual cowardice.
The outstanding exception has been John Terraine. For some forty years he has fought valiantly to replace the woeful British myth about the Great War with the prideful truth. Hardly surprisingly, his deployment of indisputable fact and of rigorous analysis has provoked ferocious counter-attacks (sometimes personal and meant to wound) from those emotionally committed to the myth. It has been a long and weary battle of attrition, but one eventually crowned with success, if not yet in popular consciousness, then certainly among thoughtful and unprejudiced historians. In Professor Brian Bond's words, John Terraine's 'dogged reiteration of his main ideas in numerous books and articles has been historiographically very significant.' *
This present collection of addresses by John Terraine to meetings of the Western Front Association as its Honorary President from 1980 to 1997 and of articles in Stand To! serve to encapsulate his achievement as a historian. They reveal him as a writer who is not only a master of the factual sources about the War, but also one who, thanks to long years of meditation, has come to a profound understanding of the realities behind the documents.
Certain basic themes inspire the collection. First and foremost there is the nature of the constraints imposed by coalition warfare. Far from the British Government and its military leadership enjoying the freedom of strategic choice sometimes supposed by facile critics, Britain, as junior partner to France in terms of size of army and width of front, necessarily had to conform with French grand strategy. And just as necessarily, that grand strategy had to be focused on expelling the German army from the great swathe of French territory occupied in 1914.
Yet in any case, so John Terraine argues, the only way to defeat Imperial Germany was to defeat the main body of her army, and that lay on the Western Front. He points out that in the Second World War too victory was only won by gutting the main body of the German army, except that this time it was the Red Army on the Eastern Front that did the job, and in battles even more terrible and costly of life than the Somme and Third Ypres.
John Terraine's account of General Sir William Robertson's tenure of the post of Chief of the Imperial Staff in 1916-18 convincingly demonstrates the fallacies of the 'strategy of evasion' dreamed up by the so-called 'Easterners' like Winston Churchill and Lloyd George, whereby at enormous cost in shipping resources Germany's satellites were to be defeated in distant fringe campaigns, as it might be the Dardanelles, or Turkey in Asia, or northern Italy.
The core of the collection consists in John Terraine's essays on 'The Generals' and on Haig himself. Given that even the Commander-in-Chief's pre-1914 experience of command in the field had been limited to 'columns' and a cavalry regiment in South Africa during the Boer War, did these British generals, suddenly confronted with the conduct of mass continental warfare, do so badly? Did they as a group perform significantly worse than their opposite numbers in allied or enemy armies? Writes John Terraine: 'We have to ask ourselves, "What is a general for?" ' And he quotes Bill Slim as saying that the commander has failed in his duty if he has not won victory. In 1918 Haig and his army commanders won their victory, first defeating the vaunted German leadership's grand Spring Offensive, and then driving the German army back to the Belgian frontier in a series of successful attacks, including breaking through the Hindenburg Line and taking almost as many prisoners as the rest of the allied forces put together. As John Terraine justly points out, it was not Haig but Ludendorff who was compelled to urge his government to ask for an armistice.
With equal justice he says that it is fallacious to compare British generals in the Great War to their successors in the Second World War, because these latter never had to engage the main body of the German Army, let alone do so year after year. That was the Red Army's post of honour. For no British generals in the Second World War ever saw on their front any equivalent of the fifty German divisions which attacked Gough and Byng's two armies on 21 March 1918. It is fallacious too, John Terraine further argues, to compare the United Kingdom's death toll of 750,000 in the Great War with the 350,000 in the Second World War, given that the twelve-month campaign in Normandy and northwest Europe in 1944-5 constituted the first and last British commitment of a major land force against a - not the - main body of the German enemy, and then with only two armies under Montgomery's command as against Haig's five in 1918.
It is John Terraine's strength that he combines intellectual rigour with humanity and compassionate insight. This is specially revealed by the second piece in this collection, which explains why the experience of the Great War proved such a lasting trauma to the British nation even though their casualties were proportionately lighter than those of other belligerents. He points out that this was the first time in her history that Britain had had to field a mass army on the Continent; that for the first time in her history she raised not an army of professional soldiers recruited from the lowest and the highest social classes but a citizen army drawn from all classes. And because conscription was rejected until 1916 on the grounds that it would breach traditional British libertarian principle, it was an army made up of millions of volunteers - the self-selected keenest and brightest of Britain's young people, often from the same streets or factories. They joined up in a spirit of patriotic adventure, knowing nothing - how could they? - of the true nature of modern war. It was therefore no wonder, John Terraine explains, that the island British, so long immune from mass warfare, were particularly hard hit by the impact of battle and loss, by the repercussions at home on particular towns, schools, streets, and by the moral shock of disillusion - no wonder too that the British still dwell eight decades later on their own experience in the Great War, almost to the exclusion of allies and enemy.
I commend this collection, with all its matured wisdom, to you.
* Editor's Introduction to The First World War and British History (Oxford, The Clarendon Press, 1991) p.9.