Maybe World War One Generals Weren’t Idiots

I was interested to read this British opinion piece, making the case that British military leadership during the Great War was not the clutch of bumbling fools which has become the stereotype of the war.

In 1928, following the sudden death of Field Marshall Douglas Haig, more people took to streets to mourn his passing that had ever been seen previously or indeed since. The very public mourning as a result of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997 was dwarfed in comparison to those that came out to pay respects to Earl Haig.

It took literature and some key individuals to change history. As one of my university lecturers once said to me, history does not happen, it is written, and that principle could not be applied more strongly to the case of First World War history.

With the publication of Alan Clark’s The Donkeys (1961) and the production of Joan Littlewood’s musical Oh! What a Lovely War (1963), a wave of popular history provided the foundation through which all subsequent knowledge of the First World War is filtered – precisely the problem with which we are now faced. Historians and thespians took the critical words of those men that had a grudge and an agenda to push, namely Lloyd George and Churchill, thus generating the idea that generals were both inept and callous.

But beyond the Blackadder episodes there is a raft of history that is desperate to break into the mainstream. No one doubts that there were a handful of poor officers at various stages of the command structure who made bad decisions that ultimately cost the lives of hundreds of men.

But as a country, we seem to forget as a matter of course that 1918 brought us victory. Could this have been possible against the might of Germany’s Imperial Army with such incompetent leadership? Clearly there is another history to expose.

Trench warfare existed as the marksmanship of the British alongside technology and weaponry caused each adversary to dig in and seek protection. By 1916, almost all the trained and elite men of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had paid the ultimate sacrifice. Despite its intricate planning and preparation, the first day of the Battle of the Somme was to be the bloodiest day in the British army’s history, with close to 20,000 men killed. This day, as revisionist historians have strived to show, was to be a turning point: the moment in which the BEF transformed itself, from high command to man on the spot, from inexperienced city army to effective fighting machine capable of challenging and defeating the German army. A combination of factors proved pivotal in the BEF’s transformation.

With every day’s fighting that passed, officers were encouraged to note the aspects of battle that had been successful, and those aspects that had not worked. These experiences were shared between units, throughout the ranks and with high command. Indeed, in mid-July, official war diaries noted that “everyone however junior in rank to be permitted to express his opinion if he has any suggestions to offer as to possible means of improving our methods”.

These experiences were to be collected and translated into three official manuals. In December 1916, Instructions for the Training of Divisions for Offensive Action (SS 135), the Instructions for the Training Platoons for Offensive Action (SS 143), issued on 14 February 1917 and the Instructions for the Training of the British Army in France (SS 144), issued in April 1917. These became essential reading for officers, who shared this knowledge with their men. Quite clearly, High Command and every level of command in the British Army were keen to learn and improve for future action.

One of the interesting things about World War One history is the fashion in which the understanding of the war has been shaped in cultural memory.

In the English-speaking world, most memoirs during and shortly after the war treated it as a horrific but necessary sacrifice. In the late 1920s, however, an increasing number of highly critical works began to be written and achieve widespread popularity.

Robert Graves’s memoir Goodbye to All That was published in 1929.

Siegried Sassoon’s semi-autobiographical trilogy of novels were being published at the same time: Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man (1928), Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930) and Sherston’s Progress (1936)

Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth was published in 1933.

All of these were written by authors who had been fairly young when the war broke out, making them contemporaries of the “lions” of the front line, not the “donkeys” back at headquarters. The fact that their writings were published, and became famous, ten years after the war probably has a bit to do with the fact that the war itself was such a deeply traumatic experience that processing it into a finishing book length work took time.

Because the Great War was a war of national mobilization, and those from the educated class in particular saw it as their duty to “do their bit” by signing up for frontline duty, an inordinate number of very good authors ended up spending significant time in the trenches. (Not just “war writers” like Graves and Sassoon, either. C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, among others, fought in the trenches of World War One.) Many of these men went to war with fairly romanticized notions of what going to war would mean. The actual experience of the front was, thus, much more of a shock to their expectations than was the war experience of the World War II generation. In addition to this shock versus expectation, the famous Great War writers were all enlisted men or junior officers. As such, they knew the bravery and the suffering of the trenches first hand. Doubtless is seemed impossible that such efforts could fail to achieve their objective if they were led well, and so it seemed clear that if battles failed to achieve their objectives, it was because the generals did not know their job and did not care. At the risk of making a flippant analogy, it is as if one tried to derive one’s whole understanding of modern business from Dilbert.

It’s also not coincidental that the wave of highly critical writing about the conduct of the war coincided with the gathering tide of between-the-wars pacifism and disillusionment. 1929 saw the collapse of the 1920s economic boom, and 1933 saw the victory of the Nazi party in Germany. The mood of the generation-after-the-war (or at least of elite opinion within it) was captured in 1933 by a debate at the Oxford Union in which the motion “[T]hat this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country,” was carried by 275 votes to 153.

Although pacifism held on until the very outbreak of World War II, it virtually disappeared with the beginning of the war and the generation of 1933 did indeed fight for King and Country from 1939 to 1945. However, the anti-war works of the late ’20s and early ’30s were given new life in the 1960s as a new generation of scholars built a consensus around the image of the Great War as being the perfect example of the insanity of war. World War II was in some sense hallowed by its association with defeating the Nazis and ending the Holocaust, but World War I provided the perfect platform for attaching class divisions, militarism and imperialism.

Over the last twenty years or so, a new wave of military historians have increasingly gone back to the sources from the war itself and concluded that while there are certainly some examples of very bad leadership during the Great War (as in most) that the armies on both sides in fact rapidly developed their strategic and tactical doctrines during the war. The carnage of the war is horrifying and undeniable, but it was not the result of generals blithely hurling men into the muzzles of machine guns, but rather of two very evenly matched sides who were rapidly adapting their weapons and tactics, yet repeatedly failing to achieve the hoped-for breakthrough because of certain basic technological problems (mostly relating to transportation) and to the other side’s matching innovations. William Philpott’s Three Armies on the Somme is an outstanding example of this school of military history.

However, although this reassessment of Great War history has been going on among military historians for some time, the stereotyped view which derives from the inter-war period and the ’60s has been very persistent in general survey courses, popular history, and in movies and books. It remains the case that “everyone knows” the Great War was about men charging through mud into machine guns for four and a half years. As such, it’s interesting and encouraging to see the above article written and published.