Going Over The Top: Lions Led by Donkeys

By David Flin


If there’s one thing that everyone knows about the First World War, it’s that the Generals were idiots who didn’t care about casualties, and kept repeatedly throwing lives away in futile attacks without ever learning from previous catastrophes. Blackadder Goes Forth, and Oh, What a Lovely War, and Alan Clark’s The Donkeys emphasise this view time after time after time. The Generals are portrayed as callous, uncaring, unthinking, and hidebound.

Some illustrious historians have fallen into this, without examining contemporary evidence. For example, A J P Taylor’s magisterial The First World War, possibly the most influential book ever written on the war, took the view at face value. When writing about Third Ypres (1917), he said: “Failure was obvious to everyone by the end of the first day except Haig and his immediate circle.” That would be fairly damning, were it not for the reports from the German High Command, which increasingly called for support and reinforcement as the battle wore on; and thousands of diaries of participants involved in the actual fighting, writing without foreknowledge of the result; and the Australian Official History, which spoke approvingly of the 2nd Armies attacks up the Menin Road two months after everyone was supposed to have lost confidence.

For entertainments such as Blackadder, it’s understandable. They’re intended to be humorous, and not the last word in historical accuracy. For intended history texts, such as Alan Clark’s The Donkeys, it’s inexcusable. The Department of Documents at the Imperial War Museum, and the Liddle Collection in the Brotherton Library at the University of Leeds are bursting with letters and diaries written at the time, with more arriving every day, faster than one historian can keep up with.

I have to admit to not understanding it. There is something indescribably enthralling about reading the words of someone who didn’t know whether they would be alive or dead by the end of the day. Obviously, the sheer scale of the losses have had an impact on the public perception. From Britain alone, around four million men went to France, and almost one million stayed there forever.

To put this into perspective, the population of Britain was around 46 million. If we halve this to take account of just men, and halve again to get a very rough approximation of the number of able-bodied men of fighting age, we have around 800,000 dying in France out of a total of 11.5 million, or around 7%. Add in the numbers killed in other theatres, and one is looking at around 1 in 6. A similar number were maimed for life in one way or another. It’s natural to want to find someone to blame for a tragedy on this scale.

One thing to get out of the way first of all is a view expressed by Lloyd-George in his 1930s Memoirs. He accused the Generals of professional incompetence, ignorance of the real conditions, and personal cowardice. Whatever else might be said, personal cowardice was not a valid criticism. During WW1, 78 British Generals of varying ranks were killed by enemy action. By contrast, the equivalent figure for WW2 was 22. Three divisional commanders were killed at Loos in September 1915, more than the number of British divisional commanders killed in the whole of WW2. Two British generals won the Victoria Cross in WW1, compared to none in WW2.

However, personal courage, while imperative in a junior officer, is not essential in a general. The criticism levelled at them is that they were hidebound idiots who callously sent men to their deaths without any qualms.

The French and British generals had a difficult task. Their Governments were insisting on attacks on the German positions to push them out of France. Unfortunately, defensive technology was very much more effective than offensive technology at this time, and once the Race to the Sea was over, there were no flanks to exploit.

The difficulties of the offensive



Radio communication was still in its infancy, and even by WW2, radio communication with units on the move was not easy. Telephones were in place, enabling defensive positions to communicate with headquarters. Lines could be cut by artillery bombardment, so defensive communication could be intermittent. However, communication with advancing troops was only possible with technology that would have been familiar to the Duke of Wellington during the Napoleonic Wars, the last time a large British Army had fought in this region. The difference being that the Duke was in a position to pretty much see the entire battlefield at Waterloo. Not so here.

Once troops left their trenches to advance towards the enemy, there was no quick way for them to report back on progress or new requirements, there was no way to correct artillery fire, there was no way of quickly changing a plan to take account of new circumstances, or correct a mistake. Any plan of attack had to be prepared and laid down in advance, which pretty much ruled out anything other than a methodical bite-and-hold approach.

The generals are much criticised for not taking advantage of openings and breakthroughs on the rare occasions that they occurred. When gaps did open up, the defence was always able to close them before they could be exploited.

Given the communication situation, that was inevitable. The generals quickly learned that exploitation was going to be unlikely, and planned accordingly. The proportion of cavalry held in reserve to take advantage fell sharply, and were used increasingly as a mobile reserve and to cover flanks.

Artillery support was also a problem. Artillery support was vital to reduce defensive positions, but without knowing where the positions were, all they could provide was pre-planned bombardments according to a pre-planned schedule. Aerial reconnaissance was still in its infancy, and the problems of communicating what was seen remained.

Artillery bombardment had to be pre-planned, and that meant that any advance had to be pre-planned. Advance ahead of schedule, and you advance into your own artillery barrage. Advance behind schedule, and the enemy get chance to come out from their bunkers and line up their machine guns.

Every combination of artillery support was tried. Methodical bombardment going on for days, trying to put as many shells as possible into a pre-determined area; lightning bombardment that only lasted a short while, but put as many shells as possible into the target as quickly as the guns could fire; creeping bombardment involving hammering a line, and walking it towards the enemy positions; guns spread along the line, or concentrated into a short sector of the line; whether to use shrapnel or explosive or incendiary or a mixture, and what sort of mixture.

That is just for artillery.

Casualty Clearing Stations. There had been some debate about how best to treat casualties from the front. The Hague Convention of 1907 stated that hospitals should not be subjected to bombardment unless they were serving a military purpose. It was felt that healing wounded soldiers such that they could return to the war was a military purpose, and so hospitals, ambulances, and stretcher bearers were considered valid targets, and hospitals were frequently shelled.

The question arose: how close to the front lines should Casualty Clearing Stations be? Too close, and they came under more accurate shellfire; too far back, and they were of little use in treating wounds.

Sir Anthony Bowlby, Consulting Surgeon to the British Forces, was in no doubt. He insisted that complex surgery could be done at the Front, the closer the better. General Haig was convinced by the benefits, and arranged for a large expansion in the number of such units. The ability to get seriously wounded men into theatre much faster saved many lives and limbs.

The next time you watch the TV programme MASH, remember that the concept was one that had been pushed for by General Haig.

Technological solutions

Many technological developments were applied to try and break the deadlock. Some were old techniques: mining to cause massive explosions beneath the enemy line; increasingly sophisticated sniping and camouflage, and more artillery to pound defensive positions.


There were also modern developments; tanks, gas, flame throwers, grenades fired from rifles, portable machine guns, and increasingly effective planes. There were developments in other areas as well, such as major advances in plastic surgery. By and large, the generals welcomed these developments. No-one quite knew how best to use them, precisely because they were new.



Should tanks be used in one group, or spread evenly along the line? How close to the infantry should they be? How far ahead should tanks exploit? What to do with crews in tanks that break down? These arguments were still raging during WW2, so it’s hardly surprising the generals didn’t make the best use of the technology to begin with.

Numbers count From the end of the Napoleonic Wars until the start of WW1, the British Army had been set up to fight small colonial wars. At the start of WW1, the whole of the British Regular Army was less than 250,000. There was a huge expansion involved, with over 5 million men serving in the British Army on the western front at some point during the war. Britain fielded six divisions at the start of the war, and by mid-1916, this had become sixty divisions. Generals had to cope with feeding, clothing, and commanding this huge army of what were predominantly raw recruits fresh out of training, and no-one had any experience on this scale.

Donkeys? The British Generals of the First World War were not an homogenous group. They had to learn entirely new skills in a rapidly changing environment, and they did so with different degrees of success. Some were incompetent, most were competent but not outstanding, and a few – such as the Canadian Lieutenant General Arthur Currie – were outstanding.

The one unifying factor that one can apply to all of them is that they were having to learn new techniques and new technologies very quickly while under immense pressure.

And if one criticises the Generals for a lack of understanding – and Lloyd George as Prime Minister frequently did – then what can one say about the person who said, in January 1915: “Britain is fighting Germans, Austrians, and Drink, and the greatest threat of these is Drink.” The person who said this was that well-known teetotaller David Lloyd-George. He also claimed, in October 1915, that soldiers’ wives were: “drinking away their over generous allowances.” The views of the soldiers to these statements is not recorded.


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