First World War Generals
The idea that staff officers were cowards took root in the flood of First World War literature which poured forth a decade after the armistice. The poets, many of whom died, took a mordant line: generals were fat, ruddy-faced buffoons who cheerfully sent men to pointless deaths while safely ensconced in five-star accommodation. The auto-biographers were less inclined to caricature but no less ready to condemn the generals for heartlessness and stupidity.
It is this image of the staff which still informs our ideas today. We don’t like nuances.
Revisionist historians like Gary Sheffield have tried to encourage a balanced view. But we prefer a Manichean picture: lions led by donkeys, in Alan Clarke’s absurd account, which he confessed was fraudulent, full of made-up quotations: a tabloid fable masquerading as history.
What is the truth?
Some of them were stupid, but they didn’t last long. Some were callous. We find heartless people in every walk of life; the military is neither more nor less burdened than banking. Some were lacking in moral fibre, technical ability or flexibility. All were sent home at the drop of a hat; there was no lack of up-and-coming senior officers to promote as substitutes for these ‘limoges’.
Soldiers’ letters show respect and admiration, if not affection, for their senior officers. Public opinion at home was no less supportive: strange, when we remember that almost every family had lost a relative. Ordinary people realised that the war had to be won. They knew that the generals were struggling with the most fearsome military machine in history. They knew that we had to attack while the enemy only had to repel our onslaughts. They realised, as our generals did, that we faced circumstances for which there was no precedent.
Some generals stood out for their genius: Maxse, Currie, Monash. Most were doing the best they could with barely-trained troops in novel circumstances: they had been trained themselves for manoeuvre battles. The static siege-warfare of the trenches was a new and insoluble problem.
The German generals had a somewhat easier task. They commanded a professional reserve army: millions of capable soldiers. They could also depend on the strange idea, shared by those millions, that Germany had the right, and the duty, to invade its neighbours. Hence the allies’ need to overcome trench systems ten metres deep with three, four or five lines of defence.
The idea that our generals were remote, and therefore cruel, is based on a simple misunderstanding. The army’s rules – established in the aftermath of the American Civil War and the Boer War – stated that a general could not fulfil his role unless he was detached from the battlefront.
Without radio, dependent on messengers and carrier-pigeons for their information, these men were obliged to do the best they could, with whatever resources they possessed, in the face of problems for which neither their experience nor their training had prepared them.
The Germans learnt from our battlefield disappointments; hence March 1918. What is often overlooked is that we also learnt from our failures: hence our headlong defeat of the German army and the armistice of November.