Public perception over war generals remains disputed

A scene from Oh What a Lovely War which opened at the Theatre Royal, London, in 1963.
A scene from Oh What a Lovely War which opened at the Theatre Royal, London, in 1963.

Even before the Armistice of November 1918 brought an end to the fighting on the Western Front, the British generals who had conducted it were being accused already of incompetence, callousness and cowardice.

Siegfried Sassoon’s poem The General summarised this condemnation:

“Good morning; good morning!” the General said

When we met him last week on our way to the line.

Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ‘em dead,

And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.

“He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack

As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack

But he did for them both with his plan of attack.

Since 1918, Sassoon’s simplified scenario of courageous, fatalistic Tommies sent in their thousands to certain death by upper-class staff officers sitting safely and comfortably in distant chateaux has become entrenched in popular perception. In his Memoirs, published in 1936, former prime minster David Lloyd George, was equally critical of British wartime generals who lacked imaginative intelligence. In particular, he attacked Douglas Haig, who had commanded the BEF on the Western Front during the last three years of the war.

After the poets, such as Sassoon, Owen and Graves, and contemporary politicians like Lloyd George, the next generation produced dramatists and film makers who perpetuated the calumny by laughing at the Great War’s military commanders. In the musical, Oh What a Lovely War (1963, 1969), Haig was shown standing at a turnstile selling tickets to witness the bloodbath on the Somme while his staff officers played leapfrog. In Blackadder Goes Forth (1989), the long-suffering privates and junior officer are the innocent victims of the ignorance and stupidity of distant senior officers.

To the savagery of war poets and the satire of broadcasters, military historians added their own critical weight. For example, Sir Basil Liddell Hart, who had been on the Somme as a captain in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, convinced himself and many others that on July 1, 1916, it had been “physically impossible” for the British infantry to cross no-man’s land to the German front line. Obstructed by barbed wire, mown down by machine gun cross fire, they were fatally weighed down by 66 pounds of equipment each was forced to carry. “The race was lost before it started, and the battle soon after”, he concluded.

Several other distinguished authors have followed the same misleading path. In 1961, Alan Clark, subsequently a minister under Margaret Thatcher, published The Donkeys. In it, he alleged that this pejorative description of British commanders on the Western Front had been coined by one of their opposite number, General Hoffman. In fact, there was no evidence for this attribution, but Clark argued that it was still thoroughly deserved. Sir John French, he wrote, was of “very secondary military calibre” and Sir Douglas Haig owed his promotion to “influential connections” with royalty and that he drove brave men into “hopeless offensives”.

Not to be outdone, in 1988, John Laffin’s account of World War One was given the title British Bunglers and Butchers. So discredited had become the name and reputation of Earl Haig, who had died in 1928, that 70 years later there was a national newspaper campaign to demolish his equestrian statue in Whitehall. By then “Butcher Haig” had become a familiar and accepted slur.

Coinciding with the opening of Joan Littlewood’s Oh What a Lovely War on the London stage in 1963, was the publication of AJP Taylor’s illustrated history of The First World War. It sold a quarter of a million copies in three months. Taylor was the first TV professional historian, widely renowned for his strong newspaper articles and brilliant lectures alone before the cameras. His unsparing wit was directed particularly at the nation’s wartime leaders, civilian as well as military. Field Marshal Haig, for example, had “relied on the divine help, become an earl and received £100,000 a year from parliament”. Instead of seeing the Somme and Passchendaele as unavoidable acts of tragic British sacrifice in a necessary cause, Taylor regarded them as futile, blind blunders.

A reaction was bound to follow. During the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the war, in 1964 the BBC showed its version of The Great War in 26 weekly episodes, first on the new BBC 2 channel, then repeated on BBC 1 in 1964-5. On average, about eight million people watched them, one in five of the total viewing population, equalling an FA Cup final. Significantly, the Corporation chose military historian, John Terraine, the recent author of a favourable biography of Haig, to write the script. The result was a realistic film, the memorable theatrical voice of Sir Michael Redgrave and a corrective, judicious narrative.

Haig was no mere court favourite: he was an Oxford graduate, a Sandhurst first, a highly experienced and tried field and staff officer who had served with outstanding merit in Sudan and South Africa, who at home had transformed the Territorials by merging the old Yeomanry, Militia and Volunteers. In December 1915 he had been the only sensible replacement as commander of the BEF when Sir John French was removed.

From then on he had managed the huge expansion of the army on the Western Front, the largest in the nation’s history, successfully uniting old regulars and reservists with territorials, volunteers and conscripts. French, Russian and eventually the German armies mutinied but never Haig’s. By the summer of 1918 his army alone was capable of mounting and sustaining an offensive. Liddell Hart resigned from the BBC’s team of advisory historians.

Since the British public rediscovered the Great War in the 1960s, during the last half century both sides of the “donkeys” argument have been repeated and the battle of words wages on. Revisionists argue that revolutionary changes in the scale and technology of warfare gave military commanders no choice but “a bloody learning curve” but by 1918 by deploying aircraft, tanks and accurate artillery the British achieved the greatest victory in our history.

However, the emotive protest poetry of Owen, Sassoon and their kind and more recently the many, best-selling volumes by Lyn MacDonald, based on the testimonies of surviving veterans, continue to dominate public perceptions. While no one has ever dared to question “lions”, “donkeys” remains disputed.