Were World War One Soldiers Really ‘Lions Led By Donkeys’?

Peter Curry

5 mins

26 Oct 2018

Close to one million men from Britain and the Empire were killed during World War One. But immediately after the war, the generals were celebrated as heroes. When Field Marshal Haig died in 1928, over a million people came to watch the funerary procession through the streets of London.

There was a service in Westminster Abbey, followed by the coffin being carried to Edinburgh, where it lay in the High Kirk of St Giles. The queue to see the coffin stretched for at least a mile, despite horrendous weather conditions.

Field-marshal Sir Douglas Haig, Kt, Gcb, Gcvo, Kcie, Commander-in-chief, France, From 15 December 1915. Painted at General Headquarters, 30 May 1917. Credit:  IWM (Art.IWM ART 324) / Public Domain.

This legacy quickly became tarnished. David Lloyd George’s war memoirs quickly undermined Haig’s standing, and British generals during World War One became increasingly vilified in popular culture.

The famous stereotype is that of ‘lions led by donkeys’, the donkeys being the uncaring, incompetent generals, responsible for thousands of their mens deaths through sheer callousness.

There have been famous portrayals in recent years by Blackadder, with Stephen Fry playing the part of General Melchett, an incompetent commander in charge of Blackadder’s regiment.

In a fit of characteristic buffoonery, General Melchett retorts, against opposition to his plan to send the men into No Man’s Land aimlessly to die, that:

…doing precisely what we have done 18 times before is exactly the last thing they’ll expect us to do this time.

Dan Snow takes an emotional journey through the key battlefields of the Western Front, from the memorial parks at the Somme to the formidable defences around Ypres.Watch Now

Separating myth from reality

As with all historical myths, fragments of truth lie sown within a larger distortion of events. One myth suggests that the generals were so out of touch as to have no idea as what was actually happening on the frontline. For instance, General Melchett’s headquarters are located in a French Chateau 35 kilometres away from the trenches.

But that a majority of generals were out of touch is completely implausible in reality.

The generals knew exactly what was happening on the battlefields, but they were under pressure to produce results. With limited avenues for manoeuvre on the Western Front, there were few lines of attack that did not involve an assault directly across No Man’s Land.

Perhaps the best evidence that the generals had a good understanding of the pain and suffering their soldiers were going through is the death of the generals themselves.

Of the 1,252 British generals, 146 were wounded or taken prisoner, 78 were killed in action, and 2 were ordered the Victoria Cross for valour.

German soldiers of the 11th Reserve Hussar Regiment fighting from a trench, on the Western Front, 1916. Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 136-B0560 / Tellgmann, Oscar / CC-BY-SA.

Mistakes from high command

This is not to suggest that generals were blameless. They did opt for tactical choices that jeopardised the lives of their men needlessly, and continued to do so throughout the war.

For instance, German general Erich von Falkenhayn created a plan to “bleed the French white” at Verdun. While Verdun had comparatively little strategic importance, Falkenhayn thought that the war could be won by exhausting French resources and manpower.

He committed thousands of German and French lives to what amounted to an extended bloodbath, in an attempt to win the war by attrition.

Andrew Roberts shares a selection of items from his Winston Churchill collection, documenting the fascinating life of one of Britain's most iconic figures.Watch Now

At the Battle of Aubers Ridge, on 9 May 1915, the British were massacred trying to attack the Germans quickly.

This was an attack based on poor intelligence – the British commanders thought that the Germans had withdrawn many more troops to Russia than they actually had – and over 11,000 British soldiers were killed or wounded.

The scale of the deaths was so great that it brought about a complete rethink of the way that the British army conducted battles.

Again, at Gallipoli, generals caused heavy loss of life through tactical errors. General Sir Frederick Stopford was put in command, despite a lack of experience in the battlefields of World War One.

The landing was initially successful, securing the beachhead and catching the Turkish army by surprise.

However, Stopford ordered his men to consolidate their position on the beachhead instead of pressing the advantage, and allowed the Turks to reinforce their defences and inflict heavy casualties.

Dressing station at Gallipoli during WW1, 1915. Credit: Wellcome Library /CC BY 4.0.

These flaws were not exclusive to British army generals. The German army trained its officers with an assumption that once trained they would know intuitively how to respond to situations on the ground, which today is known as Auftragstaktik, or mission-type tactics. This made the already difficult task of coordinating movements over large frontiers even harder.

In the early advances of 1914 on the eastern front, General Hermann von François disregarded orders from Berlin not to attack the Russians and moved in when an opportunity presented itself.

This led to the battle of Gunbinnen, where the Germans were badly defeated and lost east Prussia. The panicked Chief of Staff, Helmuth von Moltke, withdrew men from the Western Front to send eastward, thereby weakening the planned western offensive.

The Austrian army fighting under General Oskar Potiorek in Serbia was given little guidance on matters such as infantry artillery coordination.

Their limited grasp of practical warfare came at a serious cost when the Serbians defeated them in a surprise night attack at the Battle of Cer causing Potiorek and his forces to withdraw from Serbia.

Learn who is considered the true father of the RAF, why a flag must be evacuated in the event of a fire and why there are two portraits of World War One German flying aces in the college library.Watch Now

The futility of war

The main reason that World War One battle lines rarely changed was not the incompetence of generals, but the impotence of offence in the face of determined defence. While it was possible to capture the frontline trenches, it was difficult to press any advantage.

Heavy casualties were often unavoidable in any offensive. The primary issue was that offensive troops moved at around 1-2 miles per hour, whereas defenders were able to use railway networks to move at around 25 miles per hour. In the same length of time, defenders could reinforce twenty times as fast as any offensive units could.

Communication also meant that the defenders had another edge in the conflict. The field commanders had little way of finding out which units had been successful in any push, and thus didn’t know where to send troops to support any breaches in the defensive line.

Defending commanders could use telephone lines to summon troops to the breach, while attackers had no way of doing the same thing. The smallest ‘trench radio’ required 6 men to carry it, and was thus completely impractical in No Man’s Land.

Historian Richard van Emden, explains why we should give more attention to 1918 when studying the First World War. How close did Germany come to winning the war in early 1918 and how did the soldiers feel who faced their final onslaught?Listen Now

The way that war was conducted and approached from a tactical and a strategic standpoint went through a series of important changes between 1914 and 1918.

Most armies began the war using outdated tactical ideas, and progressively changed them as new technologies and new ideas showed their worth.

Most of these approaches caused heavy casualties, and there was little manoeuvrability in this regard for generals. General Mangin, a French commander, remarked that ‘whatever you do, you lose a lot of men’.

Top image credit: Vladimir Tkalčić.