- When the Great War broke out in 1914, it took all of Western Europe by surprise. Even those nations who were preparing for war were surprised by the suddenness with which it arrived and the speed with which it spread. No nation expected the war to last very long or to develop into such a bloody struggle. No nation was more surprised than Britain – totally unprepared for the kind of war – both in style & scale – that broke out on the Continent. There is some blame to be laid here, but it cannot be fairly laid on the generals. The British Army was very small – even for its Imperial responsibilities. The ration strength of the entire British Army in 1914 was 247,500. The BEF amounted to some 160,000 men. There were no plans for conscription. The British government had made no political commitment to a war in Europe and the public would not have supported them before 1914 if they had. As a result, no resources were devoted to developing a suitable army. The responsibility for that lies with the politicians – and, since Britain is a democracy, with the electorate. We are not a warlike nation, but the price of failing to prepare for war was paid in 1914 – and again in 1940 – by the soldiers of the British Army and the Empire.
- Much of the tragedy of the Great War stems from the lack of preparedness. The Army was very small and lacked the means to ﬁght a continental war – especially heavy artillery. For the same reason, our munitions industry was very small and when the army expanded – the industry to support and arm the soldiers did not exist. It took time to build more plant, introduce new working practices, train new workers, design and test new equipment and create adequate stocks of weapons and shells. During that time, the war had to be fought with the means available and the soldiers suffered terribly in consequence. This too was not the fault of the generals. Perhaps somewhere under all the public condemnation that has fallen on the generals lurks a sneaking sense of national guilt at the way these soldiers were sacrificed so that a pre-war generation might pay low taxes.
- As hundreds and thousands of recruits ﬂocked to the Colours, they had to be trained, equipped and armed – yet there was no equipment and there were no instructors. The war to which the Government had committed the Anny was on an unimagined scale. The means to cope with its demands did not exist and could not be created quickly. This is not entirely the fault of the generals.
- The private soldiers could be trained in months but the senior NCOs, the officers and above all, the staff officers needed to command and control these armies had to be selected, trained and given time to gain experience. In a rapidly expanding army that grew from a small BEF to ﬁve full Armies in just two years, time to gain experience was not available. This was not the fault of the generals.
- The Great War was a technological war dominated on land by new and powerful forms of weaponry – artillery, machine guns, aircraft and tanks. These changed the entire face of warfare and forced the generals to fight a conflict that was markedly different from anything that had gone before – in style and scale. Some of the means needed to fight such a war effectively simply did not exist – notably reliable battleﬁeld communications. The absence of good, reliable battleﬁeld communications – not the fault of the generals – was the major factor in the tactical disasters that overtook the armies after battle had been joined.
- The two British C-in-Cs – Field Marshal Sir John French and Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig were instructed by the British Government to co-operate closely with the French. As a result, certainly until summer 1917, their actions were inhibited by the need to conform to the wishes of their allies. Vital issues such as when, where and for how long to attack were subjugated frequently to the wishes of the French, and depended on French co-operation. The results of that co-operation, or lack of it – were felt at Neuve Chapelle, Second Ypres, Aubers Ridge, the Somme and several other battles. Some of this was inevitable – given our initial dependency on French logistic support and because we were fighting on French soil. But the French generals were not always as good as they thought themselves to be and rarely gave us adequate support.
- Political decisions on strategy also inhibited the generals. The Ypres salient was indefensible but was held, at great cost, for emotional and political reasons. The terrible losses at Loos in 1915 were the result of a desire to demonstrate Britain’s commitment to the French. The strategy of the ‘easterners’ (Churchill & Lloyd George) who kept looking for alternative fronts (eg Gallipoli, Italy etc) soaked up over lm British soldiers and was a drain on the resources needed for a decisive victory. Such a victory could only be won where it was won – by defeating the German Army on the Western Front. Lloyd George refused to accept this.
- The development of the trench system caused a costly stalemate for the best part of 3.5 years. It arose almost by accident not as a result of deliberate policy or intention of the generals. The result was the all the armies – British, French and German had to ﬁght a war for which the officers and men lacked the equipment or experience.
- The old British Regular Army was destroyed in 191.4-15.’ After that we had a poorly trained, amateur army because there was no one left to train it properly. ‘On the job‘ training in battle was costly in casualties and took time. It was a terrible mistake not to raise the new armies on the framework of the Territorial Force. This might have formed the basis of a more professional structure. This error was made by Lord Kitchener and endorsed by the British Government.
- The ‘learning curve’ of the British and French generals remained fairly flat and only rose significantly during the Somme battles of 1916. “Some of this was due to the shortages of men, especially well-trained men, and equipment described earlier. It is also possible that our Generals were too old but in 1914-15 we had to use the generals we had – those with some experience of command, of logistics, of warfare. Only later in the war, as the armies expanded, could younger, fresher men be found and brought up to command positions.
Some of these problems were overcome but it took time to put things right and the British armies suffered terribly during that time but in clue course – in 1918, to be exact – it all came good. The British Armies that fought on the Western Front from June to November 1918 were superb – as were their generals.
A critic on a TV documentary derided the crowds who welcomed Haig home in 1918. He put the euphoria down to relief at the end of the war “They would have cheered Charlie Chaplin”, he said. He did not tell us that when Haig died in 1928 of a heart attack aged 66, tens of thousands of old soldiers turned out to see his coffin pass and more than 30.000 veterans followed it to the burial at Dryburgh Abbey by the Tweed. It was Haig who was one of the founders of the Royal British Legion and set up the Poppy Appeal. He deserves a kinder and fairer judgement than posterity has granted him till now.
There is also a myth that most of the generals sat in their chateaux and callously sent men to their deaths. 78 generals were killed or died as a result of active service in that war. Another 146 were wounded, eight of them twice. Paradoxically they might have done better if they had stayed in their chateaux – at least they would have been on the end of a telephone. But that is not how they were brought up to behave.
Taken from ‘The Great War Generals on the Western Front’ by Robin Neillands) Robinson Publishing 1999)