Source Documents on The Generals


Commanding Officers

The much-criticised generals of the First World War tended to be elderly men who had grown up in the cavalry-dominated armies of the late-nineteenth century.   They did not understand the new technology that had led to the stalemate of the trenches, and their dream was always to smash a hole in the line so that the cavalry could go through and restore open warfare.   Meanwhile, in their bloody attempts to break the German Front, they were content, in Winston Churchill's words, 'to might machine-gun bullets with the breasts of gallant men'.   Moreover, they and their staff officers lived in comfortable headquarters far from the Front.   They understood little of local conditions as they drew up their battle plans.

Christopher Martin, War Poems (1990)


Haig's GHQ

One came to GHQ from journeys over the wild desert of the battlefields, where men lived in ditches, muddy, miserable in all things but spirit, as to a place where the pageantry of war still maintained its old and dead tradition...   It was as though men were playing at war here, while others, sixty miles away, were fighting and dying, in mud and gas waves and explosive barrages.

Often one saw the Commander-in-Chief starting for an afternoon ride, a fine figure, nobly mounted, with an escort of Lancers.   A pretty sight, with fluttering pennons on all their lances, and horses groomed to the last hair.   it was prettier than the real thing beyond the Somme, where dead bodies lay in upheaved earth among ruins and slaughtered trees...  

Philip Gibbs, Realities of War (1920)

A British war correspondent.   GHQ = General Headquarters


The Myths and the Facts

The First World War astonished its generation.   It is understandable, therefore, that exaggerations should grow up about it.   Some of these wrong ideas have been accepted, and are now part of our 'folk memory' of the war.   When a wrong idea has been generally accepted, it is called a 'myth'.   What are the myths of the Great War?   The following come from an important book, The Smoke and the Fire, by the historian John Terraine.

The 'Lost Generation'

Myth:   the First World War was the deadliest experience in human history.   A whole generation of young men was wiped out - and this led to the loss of our position as a great power.

Terraine:   About 13 million people died during the First World War - an horrific figure, but the death toll for the Second World War was over 36 million soldiers and civilians.   The entire British Empire lost about one million soldiers dead in the First World War, fewer than any of the main European powers (compare Germany, 1.8 million dead; Russia, 1.7 million; France, 1.3 million and Austria, 1.2 million).

The 'Futility' of the Somme

Myth:   The battle of the Somme was 'the most gigantic, tenacious, grim, futile and bloody fight ever waged in the history of war' (Lloyd George).

Terraine:   Britain lost 415,000 men killed or wounded during the Battle of the Somme - 2950 men a day.   This shocked the British because it was their first experience of modern warfare -  up till then the French had dome all the hard fighting.   Hence the horror and the revulsion.   But the Somme was just typical mass-warfare.   For comparison, the Russians lost 4.5 million casualties a day during the German invasion of 1941 - 23,316 a day.   The battle was not futile (wasted).   By the end of the battle the German army 'had been fought to a standstill as was utterly worn out'; the battle ;turned the tide' of the First World War.

The 'Donkeys' Myth

Myth:   The British soldiers were lions, but they were led by donkeys - stupid 'amateurish' generals who could not think of any way to win the war but to slaughter men until one side was ground into submission.  It was fine for them - safe behind the lines in their comfortable chateaux!

Terraine:   British Generals worked hard - usually 14 hours a day.   Generals had not gone into battle with their men for centuries (it is a stupid idea);  but they kept as close a contact with their men as possible, and some went onto the battlefield.   They were quick to introduce new technology and ideas - gas, tanks, aeroplanes, flame-throwers, wireless telegraphy, motor cars, dawn attacks, mines, ferro-concrete.   the nature of the war (a conflict of whole nations) meant that there was no alternative, given the technology of the time, to a war of attrition (wearing down).

John D Clare, The Twentieth Century (1995)