Written by Alan Clark a politician in the 1960s this quotation describes the leadership of the British Military and their strategies used in the Great War. It suggests that soldiers fighting in the World War were brave and courageous as he refers to them as lions. In comparison their leaders, the generals were mindless and stupid like donkeys. By holding these characteristics many believe generals exposed hundreds of thousands of British soldiers to their death. The term concentrates specially on the efforts of Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig Commander-in- Chief of the British Army on the Western Front from 1915 through to 1918. Haig was given the responsibility of breaking stalemate and hopefully bringing an end to the war. He was later given the name ‘The Butcher of the Somme’ because of the vast amount of British soldiers that died in his presence. Many assume he deserves his bad reputation but there is also evidence to explain his tactics and other generals like him. Generals were uncaring and withdrawn. They lived a surprisingly luxurious life as the war went on. They were nicely housed miles from where the frontline lay and fed so they were never left with an empty stomach.
In the trenches soldiers were faced with horrible conditions on the frontline with a lack of good food and the threat of diseases due to the decaying bodies of fellow men and big sized rats hungry to feed. They were never safe and would have to live in the fear of being gassed or shelled. The generals rarely fought or even visited the frontline but instead were sleeping ‘in a cosy bed in a quiet country chateau and dined on the best food available’ wrote Gerard De Groot in a biography of Haig. With this it appears that generals were fighting a more comfortable war than the men in the trenches giving them an uncaring attitude. They did not experience the full impact of warfare but watched and commanded from afar. Tactics used by generals were repetitive and outdated. Field Marshall Haig was 54 in age and was a great cavalry commander in the Boer War which had taken place fifteen years earlier. His military career was a long and successful one but he was unimaginative in his strategies and relied on those that he had successfully used in the past.
In 1916 the French were faced with a difficult situation as the Germans attacked around the town of Verdun killing around 700,000 French soldiers. The British High Command led by Field Marshall Haig set about trying to relieve the pressure on the French. He decided to plan a major attack along the River Somme in hope that it would draw the German soldiers away from Verdun. There was an artillery bombardment for a whole week before Haig gave the order to go over the top. It was almost five months that it took to lift the pressure off of Verdun with hundreds of thousands of soldiers dying and barely any more land being gained. Mammoth artillery bombardments merely warned the Germans that an attack was coming taking away the element of surprise. Trench warfare was a new kind of fighting which Haig and other generals did not adjust into as they did not know how to cope with it and unaware of other ways they could have used that may have been less costly in lives.
They also did not approve of modern military equipment with Haig saying in 1916 ‘The machine gun is a much overrated weapon’ even though it could have been much to their advantage with weapons being much more accurate than of previous years. Generals would plan attack after attack which sometimes were successful but costly. Full- frontal attacks sometimes did not work but even when realised the generals would still go ahead again making foolish decisions and sending men to an unnecessary death. Defence was scarcely used by British generals although sometimes it proved best in a difficult situation and easier. They also believed in the ‘Big Push’ thinking the key to victory was to overpower the enemy with greater numbers. This could be true to a certain extent but it also depends on how well trained and skilled soldiers are and how they approach the enemy lines. Generals did not accept the fact that there were alternatives which could have had instant results. However, whatever military methods used in the war, lives would be lost especially because they were fighting against one of the most powerful armies of the time. Haig did have an explanation for his tactics.
Defence alone cannot win a war so Haig attacked whenever possible. He was aware that attacks were costly but believed there was no way of avoiding losses in life which was true. Soldiers who were often volunteers knew what they had let themselves in for which was one of the bloodiest battles in war history so they were brave. Some also would criticise those in authority saying their companions were murdered through the stupidity of those in charge. Before the battle began Haig warned the public to expect vast casualty numbers. ‘The nation must be taught to bear losses…The nation must be prepared to see heavy casualty lists.’ Therefore people should not have been so shocked at the numbers reported back. Attacks did become less costly with better training and technology being introduced and eventually the war was won. Generals were under a lot of pressure. Being a general is a tough job as there are many factors that can change the outcome of their actions, it is all a game of luck and the enemy can never be underestimated. It does not help being doubted by people around you particularly politicians. Members of the government began to question Haig’s approach even after pressure had been lifted off the French in Verdun.
Winston Churchill wrote about hardly any ground being gained. Being criticised by an important person like a member in parliament would have really lowered generals’ self-esteem and added on the pressure making their job ten times harder. They also earned themselves a bad reputation for not personally visiting the frontline. Although this may come across as an uncaring attitude towards their soldiers it can be argued that generals could manage the frontline easier from a further distance as they would have a good view of all of the trenches and could identify what the circumstances were at each section. In conclusion it is evident that methods of attack were frivolous and expensive in the cost of lives. The main points being that attacks were overused, the opposition was strong and generals carried an unpleasant attitude. Nevertheless the public were quick to criticise when really no one knew how to fight a war like it as it was a new experience in warfare and so no one could offer alternatives in that moment of time. Generals handled the situation as best as they could and worked with what they knew and trusted which eventually bore the fruits of their labour. Soldiers were heroic in sacrificing their lives but generals should also be commended for their confidence and determination in the quest to winning the Great War.