Lions led by donkeys?

British advance through gas at Loos.
British advance through gas at Loos.

In 1961, two years before Joan Littlewood’s play Oh What a Lovely War opened in London, a young military historian, Alan Clark, son of Lord Clark the art historian, published a book with the title The Donkeys. Clark claimed that his title was derived from a reported exchange between the German generals, Ludendorff and his chief of staff, Hoffman. The former had said, “The English fought like lions,” to which the latter replied, “True. But don’t we know that they are lions led by donkeys?”

Though this conversation was invented by Clark, “lions led by donkeys” has since become popular shorthand for the British army’s role in the Great War on the Western Front, not just the battle of Loos of September, 1915, the main subject of his account. Later, Alan Clark, who was to become one of Mrs Thatcher’s favourite ministers, won damages for unacknowledged use of material from his book in Littlewood’s play. And it became a common assumption that both her play and film of it was based on The Donkeys.

However, as several distinguished military historians have since shown, a close study of the battle of Loos in northern France throws a much clearer and fairer light on the conduct of officer leadership as well as that of the rank and file of British private soldiers.

First of all, the strategic context needs to be explained to understand why the BEF launched yet another unsuccessful attack on prepared German defences in September 1915: it was not merely a futile, unnecessary demonstration of foolish chauvinism. The disastrous failure of the Gallipoli campaign against Turkey; the colossal defeat of the Russians in Poland and their loss of Warsaw; and, most alarmingly, the threat of a political coup in Paris which might lead to French peace negotiations with the Germans – all convinced Lord Kitchener that priority must be given to action on the Western Front.

In August 1915, Kitchener told General Haig, commander of the BEF’s First Army, “We must do our utmost to help the French, even though by so doing we suffer very heavy losses indeed.” Haig did not agree, and fatally, as subsequent events suggested, neither did Sir John French, the BEF’s commander-in-chief.

Far from meekly accepting Kitchener’s argument, Haig pointed out that in the face of formidable German fortifications, the BEF still lacked the essential weight of heavy artillery and ammunition. The ground over which the infantry would have to cross was too flat, bare and open, and therefore too exposed to enemy rifle, and machine gun fire. However, when his request to use chlorine gas in advance of the assault was accepted, Haig reconciled himself to the plan.

Nevertheless, as Haig feared, the artillery bombardment which began on September 21 was weakened by rationing of ammunition. Each field gun was restricted to 150 rounds every 24 hours and the heaviest to little more than half that number. Hopes of an infantry breakthrough therefore centred on the 5,000 cylinders of chlorine gas and a westerly wind to blow it over and into the German front-line trenches.

In the event, the British artillery barrage had very little effect: according to many eye-witnesses, shells fell in no-man’s-land, failed to explode or even dropped short on British front-line troops. Most of the German barbed wire remained intact. And when the gas was released the wind was too weak and variable to take it to the German front and some of it actually filled British trenches. Where break-ins were achieved at great cost there were no reserves at hand and ready to exploit them. In the end, for the gain of little more than two miles, British casualties numbered about 50,000. Whatever the mistakes of the British high command, the battle of Loos took its toll on senior officers. Of the nine major-generals who led the nine divisions engaged, three were killed in action or later died of wounds. After these losses, divisional generals were told to stay out of the front line during battles. However, between 1914 and 1918, four lieutenant-generals, 12 major-generals and 81 brigadier-generals lost their lives on active service. Clearly, not all senior officers enjoyed the safety and comforts of French chateaux.

The battle of Loos marked a decisive change at the very top. After yet another “fiasco”, British politicians and public needed a whipping boy and the choice fell predictably on Field Marshal Sir John French. His place as commander-in-chief of the BEF was given to General Douglas Haig. Also, though he was far too popular to be sacked, Lord Kitchener was effectively shorn of his overall command: he remained Secretary of State for War but lost control of munitions and principal director of strategy to Sir William Robertson, chief of the imperial general staff. K’s role was reduced to clothing and feeding the army.

Kitchener had lost favour with his political masters, but his reputation with press and public was undiminished. From the outset he had been the only member of Asquith’s cabinet who declared that the war would last three years and not three months, and that it would test the country to the limit of its capacity. By the end of 1915, no one could doubt the truth of this prophecy. Undoubtedly, K’s greatest service to the nation was his contribution to the recruitment of the “New Armies” of volunteers. Of the six million posters encouraging enlistment before conscription came early in 1916, his pointed finger and the message “Your Country Needs YOU” was by far the most effective. He was wrong to underestimate the fighting qualities of the Territorials, but right about the necessity of raising a British army of millions. Margot Asquith’s jibe that he was only “the great poster” was both cruel and wrong.

For the next three years, Haig ran the military conduct of the war. When he took over the BEF consisted of a mixed army of 600,000 regulars, reservists and Territorials, holding a front of only 30 miles. When the war ended, with the addition of K’s volunteers and conscripts, it had trebled in size and was responsible for 120 miles of line. At the end of 1915, the British were no more than a supplement to the French. By 1918 they were the only ones on the Western Front capable of launching and sustaining a victorious offensive. Significantly, every major army on both sides at some time mutinied, but not the BEF.

Whatever Haig’s faults (and they were many), there was no one in the military high command who could match his abilities as a staff officer, his grasp of detail, sharp intelligence and the dour Presbyterian faith which gave him such iron resolve and self-discipline. Whichever four-legged animal he might have resembled, it was not a donkey.

to be continued