Has history misjudged the generals of World War One?

Open navigator

Please turn on JavaScript. Media requires JavaScript to play.

1. Lions led by donkeys

Almost a million men from Britain and her Empire were killed during the First World War – a devastating statistic for which Britain’s wartime military leaders have borne the brunt of the blame.

The stereotype is that the ordinary soldiers were lions led by donkeys – the donkeys being incompetent, uncaring generals, responsible for thousands of unnecessary deaths.

There were 1,252 of these officers in the very highest ranks of the British Army during World War One, from administrators and medical consultants to men who commanded the army in battle. They faced situations that no British military leader had ever encountered before. And ultimately, they delivered victory for Britain and her allies. So has history misjudged the generals of World War One?

2. The popular view of generals

The British High Command was ultimately victorious in World War One. So how did their reputation for incompetence become so widespread?

Gary Sheffield explores our views of the generals of the British Army. Images courtesy of Mary Evans Picture Library, Getty Images, TopFoto, Imperial War Museum and Hutchinson.

When Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig died in 1928, the major controversies about his reputation were still to come. His death was a cause for national mourning; a moment that loomed as large in the nation's consciousness as the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997. For many, the achievements of Haig and his fellow commanders was worthy of that tribute.

3. An unprecedented war

By 1914 the British Army had a great deal of experience fighting conflicts all over the empire but nothing on the sheer scale of World War One.

A new style of conflict

The pre-war British Army was small, efficient and well-experienced. But that experience had come fighting on a small scale in the colonies of the British Empire. Even in the biggest of these conflicts, the second Boer War, Britain faced 88,000 men. At the start of World War One, the German Army alone numbered over 3.7 million. And this wasn’t just one nation fighting another – this was a war that involved every industrial power in Europe. Nothing had prepared the British generals, or the men they led, for this.

The British Army had to expand quickly. From 700,000 available men at the beginning of the war, over 5 million served at some point. The six divisions on the Western Front in 1914 had become 60 by mid-1916. Generals had to cope with feeding, clothing, and commanding this huge army - and none had any experience on this scale.

An untrained army

Thanks to Kitchener’s call for volunteers, followed by the introduction of conscription, the British Army went from being a professional force to an army of inexperienced soldiers - most of whom had been civilians just a few weeks earlier.

The generals had to command an army of bank clerks, shop assistants, businessmen and miners. Many regimental officers were also new recruits.

Untested weapons

Recent technological advancements meant both sides were armed with devastating quantities of firepower and were much stronger defending in their trenches than they were in attack. The new combination of artillery and aircraft produced a revolution in military affairs that was to transform the conduct of battles.

During the first years of the war, thousands of lives were lost as both sides attempted nineteenth century-style frontal attacks against twentieth century defences. All sides were learning, and the result was four years of stalemate. The British soon began to experiment with new tactics and weapons, although it took until 1916-17 to develop successful methods that combined artillery and infantry attacks.

Lack of communication

Orders and battle plans had to be relayed to thousands of men across hundreds of miles of frontline. This made it impossible for commanders to lead from the front and communicate properly at the same time.

By 1914 radio and telegraph were established technologies, and provided the most efficient means for generals to communicate with their armies. But these technologies were based on wire, and were of little use when men went over the top of their trenches to attack the enemy. The most reliable ways of getting messages back to headquarters were runners, and the traditional carrier pigeon.

However, by 1918 primitive radio was appearing on the battlefield. But thousands lost their lives because those in command often had to make decisions based on missing or incorrect information.

4. The cost of being a British general in WW1

Infographic showing that almost 1 in 5 British generals in WW1 were killed, taken prisoner or wounded

The idea of the generals of World War One sat safe, far behind enemy lines, does not tell the whole story of their experience of the conflict.

Brigadier-General Frederick William Lumsden was among those generals killed in action. In June 1917 he had been awarded the Victoria Cross after personally leading artillery and infantry teams to secure captured enemy guns under relentless heavy fire. A year later, again in the front lines, he was killed by enemy fire. Most generals could not fairly be described as shirking action. The other charge routinely levelled against them is one of incompetence.

5. Disaster and incompetence

Popular culture has given us a caricature of upper class, uncaring and poor leadership in the British Army. While this is largely inaccurate there are some examples of inept command that resulted in battlefield disaster and tragic loss of life in the First World War.

The Battle of Aubers Ridge, 9 May 1915

Less than a year into the war, Germany started moving troops from the Western Front to fight Russia on the Eastern Front. Britain and France thought they could take advantage of a weakened enemy.

The British attacked at Aubers Ridge. It was a complete disaster. Commanders ordered only a short artillery bombardment. This approach had worked at Neuve Chapelle two months earlier, but not here against significantly strengthened German defences.

The attack failed to achieve any of its objectives, and more than 11,000 British soldiers were killed or wounded – many of them barely out of their own trenches. The scale of the failure, under the overall command of Field Marshal Sir John French and General Sir Douglas Haig, was so huge it brought about a major re-think of the way the British Army conducted battles. It would be a mistake the Army was determined not to repeat. The disaster of Aubers Ridge comes closest to bearing out the stereotype of incompetent British leadership.

Lieutenant General Stopford, Gallipoli, 1915

In 1915, General Sir Ian Hamilton, commander of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force requested a proven General, preferably with Western Front experience, to lead his planned assault on Gallipoli in Turkey.

Instead Lord Kitchener offered him two equally hopeless alternatives. The first wasn’t even fit. The second was 61 year-old General Sir Frederick Stopford. A lack of recent field experience and ill health notwithstanding, he was put in charge of the landing at Suvla Bay.

While the landing was an initial success – the beachhead was secured and the Turkish army caught by surprise – Stopford decided against pressing this advantage, and instead consolidated on the beach when vigorous offensive action was needed. The self-imposed delay gave the Turks the chance to recover and bring in reinforcements of their own. The opportunity was thrown away, and stalemate set in, accompanied by heavy loss of life. Stopford was replaced 10 days later and sent home.

Major-General Townshend, siege of Kut, 1916

An experienced battlefield commander of the pre-war British Army, Sir Charles Townshend was given the task of capturing Baghdad. He advanced up the Tigris River but over-estimated the ability of his army to defeat a larger Ottoman force under German command at the Battle of Ctesiphon in November 1915.

The British retreated to the city of Kut, and a siege followed. Townshend’s inaccurate reports of a lack of supplies to his commanding officer resulted in a number of failed relief missions, until he finally surrendered in April 1916. The loss was a huge humiliation. Townshend lived out the rest of the war as a prisoner in relative comfort. His men were less fortunate – more than half of them died.

At the beginning of World War One, the number of men who had the necessary experience to command the British Army was very limited and terrible errors, resulting in huge loss of life, were made. But as the war progressed, commanders acquired experience. Mistakes were learned from and men were promoted on merit.

6. Meet the generals

From battlefield commanders, to administrators, fighting a war on the scale of World War One required a range of different kinds of leadership. The stories of different commanders in the British Army reveals the range of their experiences.

Gary Sheffield explores some of the many roles required of commanders in World War One. Images courtesy of Mary Evans Picture Library, Getty Images, National Portrait Gallery, Bridgeman Art Gallery and Topfoto.

The British generals of the First World War were not an homogenous group. They performed a variety of functions and roles and they did so to differing degrees of effectiveness. A few were incompetent, most were not, all were operating under incredible pressure. What, then, of the military leader who bore the ultimate responsibility? How do the charges against Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig stack up?

7. Has history misjudged Haig?

The reputation of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the British Army in France from 1915 until the end of the war, has been the subject of intense debate.

Accusation: Did not mix with or understand his men

Gary Sheffield’s verdict: Partially acquitted.

Haig was an excellent regimental officer who put the welfare of his men foremost. The informal style of mixing with his men adopted by Field Marshal Montgomery in the Second World War would not have worked in 1914-18 when social conventions were very different. Haig would have been embarrassed (he was rather inarticulate) and his soldiers would have been baffled. His men saw him, in a formal setting, when he inspected parades. As President of the post-war British Legion Haig mixed with ex-soldiers and became extremely popular. To claim Haig had no understanding of his men is wrong, although he was instinctively more at home with professional soldiers than wartime recruits.

Accusation: Never won a major offensive

Gary Sheffield’s verdict: Acquitted.

Haig led his armies to decisive victory in the 1918 Hundred Days offensive that ended with German capitulation on 11 November. The contributions of other Allied armies must be recognised; indeed all Haig's offensives need to be seen in this context. Battles earlier in the war, such as the Somme in 1916, saw heavy loss of life but were also strategic successes for the Allies. Haig argued they created the conditions for the victories of 1918 by wearing down the strength and morale of the German army. I agree with this assessment - traditional victories were not possible in trench warfare, so attrition was a vital and valid method.

Accusation: Promoted because he was well-connected

Gary Sheffield’s verdict: Acquitted.

Haig was a thoughtful, hard-working and professional soldier, though by 1899, after 14 years in the Army he had only achieved the rank of captain. But thanks to an outstanding performance in the Boer War, Haig moved up the Army hierarchy where he excelled in a number of demanding posts. He impressed Richard Haldane, the great reforming War Minister, who would have seen through a well-connected duffer. Haig's reputation was enhanced on the battlefield in 1914-15, meaning he was the obvious candidate to take command on the Western Front when Sir John French's credit was exhausted.

Like many officers, Haig had connections with the British Royal family including King George V, but this was a minor factor in his rise.

Accusation: Outdated tactics cost many lives

Gary Sheffield’s verdict: Partially acquitted.

The conduct of war went through a profound revolution between 1914 and 1918. The British army, like all other armies, began the war using outdated tactics. These were progressively replaced by cutting-edge methods incorporating the latest technology, including artillery, air power, machine-guns, gas, and tanks. By 1918 Haig's forces had evolved a war-winning weapons-system that enabled them to defeat the German Army in battles such as at Amiens in August that year. As for casualties, win or lose, Western Front battles were costly in human life. A French commander, General Mangin, rightly remarked, 'whatever you do, you lose a lot of men'.