The question “were the British soldiers ‘Lions led by Donkeys?'” has been an ongoing debate since the end of the war. A war which is dominated by images of bloody battles such as the Somme and Passchendaele – futile frontal attacks against the machine guns.
There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the troops were ‘lions led by donkeys’. The definition that the soldiers were ‘lions’ in the war has never been questioned – due to the horrific reports of their lives in the war.
The soldiers were just young men: young men from all over Britain thrown into war. It was hardly heard of men refusing to serve in the war – re-cruitment posters (source A) put pressure on men to join, by playing on their conscience.
Boys were recruited, teenage boys as young as 14 or 15! Even though the age was 18. Once boys had joined, whatever age, they were “in the army now” and so had to go and fight: to see horrific visuals they should never have seen. (source D/E).
The Soldiers had miserable lives in the trenches: the food was limited to Bully beef, biscuits, tinned foods etc. The soldiers always thought that they had half of what they really should have. The officers also enjoyed better quality food.
Life in the trenches consisted of working during the night, and trying to get some rest during the day: as well as having to fight and fire guns. The stand-to called at dawn and dusk routinely also saw the soldiers standing sometimes for hours waiting for enemy attacks that rarely ever came.
Tedium was a major problem in the trenches, so many soldiers took to writing poetry or letters to home. Letters where they were not really allowed to write of the full horrors they saw.
The trenches were simply huge ditches, the low ground meaning that they were often water-logged, and very wet and muddy. The filthy trench conditions attracted all types of unpleasant creatures – strange horned beetles (source C). They were also infested with lice and rats and frogs. The dugouts where the men had to sleep would be crawling with lice and they were driven wild with itching. The rats also helped the spread of diseases through the trenches and the men, feeding upon dead human flesh. Adding to the atrocities of trench life, were the horrible scents lingering there: (source E) the smell of the mud, human waste and decomposing bodies.
The soldiers lived in daily fear in the trenches, of the smell of lingering gas. It was the most feared weapon. The enemy would bomb the gases into the allied trenches – gases such as chlorine , mustard gas, and Napalm. These gases had horrific effects such as to make the soldiers cough up their lungs, or to even rot alive!
The soldiers also suffered great deals in Battles such as the Somme, and Ypres etc. Events where they drowned in mud, were mowed down by German machine guns, and suffered great losses.
All these pressures of the soldiers and their experience of the war, or the stories the survivors had to tell show that they were ‘lions’ in this war.
The issue mainly discussed though on the topic of the First World War is that of the generals being ‘donkeys’. The question being – where the soldiers of WW1 brave men, sent to their deaths by incompetent officers?
Source N strongly suggests that men were getting slaughtered by the enemy, due to the “stupidity…of those in charge”. This is direct criticism against the generals, and evidence that the soldiers were ‘lions led by donkeys’.
The Commander-in-cheif Generals of the British Army during the First World War were Sir John French (1915) and Sir Douglas Haig (!915 onwards).
French was seen as an overall bad leader to the B.E.F. Seen in such examples as the First Battle of Ypres (1914).
The British and German troops co-incidentally met at Ypres, both with the intentions of out-flanking the opposition. However the British army were not only less in numbers, but badly led by French – who was described as ‘jumping from bursts of extreme confidence to gloom’. So therefore, the British suffered great losses, with new troops being filed in day after day – more casualties adding to the list.
Also in 1915, French staged an attack at a place called Neuve Chapelle on the 10th March. The British had no shells, so there was no preliminary bombardment – so the attack on the Germans was a complete surprise and initially a success. However French continued to fail from here as the British hesitated to fill the gap they had made in the German lines in a wait for re-inforcements: by which time the Germans had filled the gap. A pointless battle which lasted only three days.
Other so-called battles like these took place while Joffre insisted on ‘one more attack’. This resulted in 50,000 French being lost in February (advancing only 500 yards) in Champagne. 60,000 were lost at St Mihiel, and 120,000 were lost in May near Arras. The British tried new offensives at Festubert and Aubers Ridge, which only resulted in a larger scale of casualties. Surely this is evidence enough to show that the Generals were not making the right decisions on either part of the Allied armies, and that is was simply causing more men to die: even at this early stage of the war.
The next action that Sir John French took proved to set an example to all Generals and officers throughout the war: British generals who prolonged the slaughter kept their posts and won promotions, Whereas those who protested to the decisions were in danger of dismissal.
This warning was made during the attack at Ypres, where the Germans used the new weapon if poison gas on the British. French responded by insisting on counter-attacks, but only proved to increases the casualty list. When the army commander, General Smith-Dorrien argued against French’s decision, he was rapidly dismissed.
However, the General whose decisions made most influence on the war was that of Douglas Haig, who for the majority of the war was the British Commander-in-chief.
Many people criticised, and still do criticise him for the way in which he ran the army. Many believe that Haig was too remote from the soldiers, and that he had no comprehension of their lives in the trenches. As he failed to visit them even once – one of the worst scenarios being during the Battle of the Somme, (source L): where he dined 40 miles away in a comfortable chateau. And remained ignorant to the horrors he was sending his men into.
Haig also did not communicate very well with the other generals. They were afraid of him, and so they never conversed about the war, and so many views were never told or corrected. Such as seen in Haig (eg: during the Somme) where his tendency to monitor the missions, yet not correct officers who were doing a bad job, cost the lives of many more men.
The Battle of the Somme is also a topic where Haig can be criticised strongly. The ideas given by Foch and Haig (sources G-H) which were used in the battle plan for the Somme were highly wrong and unrealistic. It was the huge underestimation of the machine gun that cost so many lives. Haig and Foch believed that ‘grit and determination’ could overcome the firepower and fatality of the machine gun.
There was also huge speculation over how the bombardment would succeed. There was so much assumption that the barbed wire would be cut, and that (as Haig quoted) not “even a rat” would be left alive. It become obvious in evaluation of the events of the battle that no plans for safety were made (source M). Only the one possibility of success was thought of, which again proved fatal for the British soldiers as they were ploughed down by the German machine guns, as they marched unprotected across no-mans land: the Germans had nearly all survived in the strong fortifications of their underground bunkers.
A number of faults can be picked out from the plan for the battle of the Somme. Source K suggests that ‘any Tommy’ would have known the idea of cutting the barbed wire would not have worked. This does not provide good evidence for the Generals.
There were two aims set to visibly achieve in the Somme. They were to kill as many Germans as possible, and to destroy the barbed wire fortifying the German trenches. The artillery did not succeed to do their jobs well, and therefore both of these aims failed.
The German bunkers were deep, and there was simply not enough artillery. The area chosen to attack on was also too widespread, and had very little effect on the German trenches.
Haig having criticised French strongly for some of his offensives during his time in command, once in command himself began to think that they could work. He had a favourite strategical plan which was to attack Flanders and then ‘roll up’ the Germans from the North. This was his initial idea for the Somme. However, Joffre did not like this idea and instead pointed out the Somme as a point, (which tactically would turn out to be better for the Germans) yet Haig failed to defend his own idea.
It was a very unsuccessful plan, receiving 57,000 casualties on the first day alone. A horrific figure. But yet Haig pressed on, and the Battle waged for 4½ months. Many cannot understand why Haig chose to do this, and believe it was an act purely resulting in criminal neglegance.
Other Battles where Haig is remembered as being an unsuccessful leader is in that of the third battle of Ypres – Passchendaele. Passchendaele was at a similar time to the Somme and had similar results also. Which emphasised Haig’s inability to learn from his mistakes. A stronger point against him being a bad general.
Haig launched the Battle with an aim on the German-occupied ports on the Belgian coast. It went ahead on the 7th June 1917, and on its first day cost 24,000 men. The main attack was on low ground, over water sources. Shelling had churned the clay soil and smashed the drainage systems beneath. Making it the worst scenario for a battle possible – with men, their horses and pack mules simply drowning in the mud.
All the shell holes filed with water, and the only other solid objects in the desolation were the German strong points – where they operated their machine guns to scyth down the attackers.
Despite all this, Haig let the battle continue – where it eventually ended in November of that year. What was supposed to be a “thrusting break through” had turned into a battle of attrition.
The British had made a total advance of just 5 miles – at the cost of ¼ million casualties! The only consolation the British generals took from this battle was that the Germans had also suffered grievously.
The question which remains unanswered to many is why Haig let a battle, fought in such terrible conditions, to continue; especially at such a high price and number of casualties, where there was the Somme also to show the error of battles like these.
Lloyd George (Prime minister) also asked the opinion of the two out-of-work generals – French and Wilson, who both opposed Haig’s decision to keep the battle going; in the thought that the ‘Germans will collapse’.
Haig pushed his army deeper into a battle, that many called the Slough of Despond. Reflected in poems such as that of Siegfried Sassoon’s – “I died in hell – They called it Passchendaele.”
However, contrary to this evidence that the WW1 generals were all ‘donkeys’ there is evidence to prove otherwise.
The myth of popular belief that all the generals were uncaring, and reamained isolated from their troops at the frontline can be disagreed with. Less widely known is the fact that 78 British and Dominion officers of the rank Brigadier General or above died on active duty in WW1. And there was a total of another 146 wounded. These figures provide proof, that contrary to popular belief, generals frequently went close enough to the battle front to place themselves in serious danger.
There was also pressure applied on the generals because of politicians. At the beginning of the war, to keep the British public happy the politicians were promising that the war would ‘be over by Christmas’ and that it would only be a ‘quick war’. This put tremendous pressure on the generals who felt they had to comply to these promises that were being made. However it is impossible to secure how long a war will last for, and what military tactics at such an early stage in the war would end the whole thing!
In 1917, when Lloyd George became Priminister, he placed the British army under the control of the French. So therefore the British army had to follow the French plans, and not their own, due to the interferance of politicians; who had no military knowledge.
And again, politicians interfered with military plans, such as Joffre insisting in 1916 that a battle plan Haig had devised should be fought at the Somme. A place which worked out tactically due to the geography of the location, to be at the advantage of the Enemy troops! It therefore being a location that Haig would have never chosen himself.
Critics also pressed on that during the First World War the generals were looking to the past; which was not entirely true. They were interested in new technology, as in 1916 having invented the tank, and being the first ever army to use them in warfare, by introducing them at the Somme.
Anyone who wants to criticise the generals of WW1 will immediately refer to battles such as the Somme or Passchendaele – the most horrific, and where the British suffered most loss.
Despite the fact the British suffered great casualties in the Somme, there were decent aims behind the battle (source F). And contradicting sources such as K (suggesting that the plan failed, and it had always been doubted) Source O suggests that the attack was well planned and that soldiers felt confident and thoroughly informed.
Courtney from Study Moose
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