John Singer Sargent painting of British First World War Generals
 British Generals of the First World War



During the preparation of my article entitled Prominent Commanders of the Great War once again the obvious became only too apparent - some commanding generals were much better, or successful, at the art of war than others. It was also clear that the generals often had difficult hands to play. Be it the paucity of supplies; adverse terrain; variability of the fighting ability of the troops available to them, or the benign/malign influence of politicians who were in-charge of the prosecution of the war. Evidently, luck often played an important part in success or disaster. Since warfare is dominantly an outdoor exercise, also the vagaries of the weather frequently foiled the best-laid plans.

However, there were other influences that particularly affected the ability of the generals' ability to cope; not least the oft-quoted Irishman's advice; "I wouldn't start from here, if I were you." Rarely was a commanding general in full control of events, let alone its principals. Examples of imposed and self imposed, limitations were:

  • The relatively small size of the British Army at the outbreak of war, when it had only 260,000 men (with 160,000 intended for the BEF) and no plans for conscription, compared with the well trained, largely conscript, millions of the Continental armies.
  • The unexpected rush by the belligerents to mobilize in late 1914 when events overtook strategy and, it must be said, due and proper caution was cast aside. Germany, in particular, with its large population, and ever increasing technological supremacy, could have surely achieved its expansionist aims without resort to war in Europe, had its autocratic and militarists leaders exercised a little less bombast and bit more patience and diplomacy.
  • The almost total lack, particularly on the British side, of an adequate and efficient arms and munitions industry that could be rapidly expanded to meet the demand from the various fronts. The lack of heavy artillery and high explosive shells cost the British dear in the early phases of the war, when the barbed wire and trench defenses proved relatively immune to its almost exclusive use of shrapnel shells.
  • The failure to gear civilian populations to the eventuality of a long war and the preparation of the means for the provision of the huge amounts of material that would be required to sustain such a war. Moreover, organizations such as the British Trade Unions were allowed too much power in dictating the use and conditions of labour. It was only the introduction of large numbers of women into the British labour force that made it possible to expand the arms, munitions and other essential industries to meet the ever accelerating and changing needs of the armed forces.
  • The failure to appreciate the sheer killing ability of the shattering combination of artillery-fire and the machine-gun. Also misunderstood was the general lack of relevance of the cavalry once trench warfare became the norm. Huge resources were uselessly tied up by the largely redundant cavalry units. Nevertheless, by 1914, serious and systematic attempts had been made to train some of the cavalry in a dual infantry role and these dismounted troops often played a critical part in important battles e.g. Messines in 1914.
  • The lack of a consistently reliable and truly 'wireless' communication system to readily control the armies on the battlefield. Usually, once an attack had started the commanding general could, and did, just sit back and wait for events to evolve and for information to emerge from the fog of war. An inordinate amount of effort and material went into the establishment and maintenance of underground telephone and telegraph wiring only to have a single critical break by shell, or sabotage, render the system useless. The availability of reasonably portable radios would have transformed matters immeasurably.
  • The comparative numerical weakness and sub-ordinate role of the BEF prior to the Somme Offensive in 1916. This meant that the French Army commanders, abetted by the francophile Generals French and Wilson, dominated planning and strategy on the Western Front with an inevitable skewing of strategic and tactical objectives to suit French strategy and aims. Many of the earlier British large scale operational failures were at least partly due to a lack of the operational support promised by the French High Command.
  • The withering away of the trained regular armies in the profligate offensives of the first months of the war, that greatly reduced the reserves of trained officers, NCO's and men available for the creation, training and effective deployment of the new armies. This particularly affected the building up of the fighting strength of the British Army.
  • The inability of the Allies to provide appropriate defensive strategies and novel offensive capabilities when the largely static trench-warfare began in late 1914, so as to break this impasse before the armies became virtually intractably 'frozen' in place.
  • The strategy that for many months encouraged the continued use of the tactic of mass frontal advance by the infantry and cavalry over open ground. This was often in daylight, against well-armed defence systems and was largely based on the futile and immoral philosophy of attrition. The defenders were given an extraordinary ability to inflict enormous casualties on the attackers and this led, eventually, to the effective demoralisation of much of the aggressively efficient German, French and Russian Armies. Often, such hugely wasteful attacks were further compromised by the inappropriate use of the available artillery that failed to achieve the maximum disorientation and destruction of the defending armies and their defences. This 'Frontal Attack' strategy should have been seen as futile long before the German revolutionised their methods with storm troopers, assault battalions and highly supportive artillery firepower.
  • The distraction of the Allies by the simultaneous opening up of several operational fronts. Long-term strategic imperatives clearly indicated that maximum effort should be placed on the Western Front where the Central Powers had to be defeated in the short-term to ensure success elsewhere in the longer-term.
  • The clever use by the Central Powers of the German East African Army to divert an inordinate number of troops from the Western Front to East Africa - by some accounts 300,000 - for the whole duration of the war.
  • The relatively small cadres of really experienced senior officers and NCO's that were available for active service and training. Due to its small standing army, and a Territorial Reserve that was largely not eligible for service outside the UK, the British Army was particularly affected. Retired and incompetent officers and NCO's were brought back to active duty and given tasks for which they were neither qualified nor capable. Learning curves were correspondingly shallow, leading to a poor grasp and slow exploitation of the required tactical and technical changes in both training and operations. The Central Powers appeared to resolve these problems more quickly than the Allies did.


1. Haig.

As one of the undisputed victors of the war on the Western Front, Field Marshal Haig must be considered as a highly successful commander, and it is difficult to see who could have been a better choice when he first took over the command of the BEF in 1915 from French. Late-comers such as Monash and Currie only came into their own in the later phases of the war and as Dominion soldiers with no pre-1914 active service were not seen as any real threat to Haig. However, it was rumoured that Lloyd George did give consideration to replacing Haig with Monash in the horrendous days of the German Michael Offensive in the spring of 1918.

Most criticism of Haig's conduct of the war inevitably centres on the high casualty rate suffered by the men under his command and his avid support of the principle of attrition. Undoubtably, his insistence in pursuing an offensive when perhaps the more au fait of his commanders were calling for cessation, or a pause, was guided by his ideas of attrition and the development of the 'Big Push'. His lofty attitude and detachment was, he firmly believed, the way a commander of a large army should conduct himself. Certainly, many of those who served under him also thought this to be the correct demeanour for a soldier with his crushing responsibilities.

Comparatively, he was open minded and supportive about the introduction of new technology, but was often let down by subordinates who failed to properly exploit the capabilities so offered.

His command of the British troops in the August 1918 Offensive was virtually faultless and no British Army has ever had such resounding success, as, indeed, the extensive list of battle honours attest.

2. The British supporting cast of Allenby, French, Gough, Kitchener, Plumer, Rawlinson, Robertson, Smith-Dorrien, Wavell, Wilson and Horne.

Allenby, was a martinet of the first water, and a not notably successful commander on the Western Front. He reluctantly accepted, in 1917, the command of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in Palestine. This mixed force was composed of British and Empire troops and even Arabian irregulars, and was at a low point after the failures of Gaza I and II. He found fame leading the EEF in a brilliant open campaign, finally vanquishing the Turks in Palestine in 1918.

French, was weak in the French language and the social graces (which even Great War British generals were expected to possess), abrupt in manner, and under the influence of the francophile Wilson. Thus influenced, he led the BEF into a sub-ordinate role on the Western Front. He quickly lost grasp of the war situation and was pushed aside after the debacle of Loos in 1915. He was replaced by Haig.

Gough was said to be rather slap-dash in his staff work and was much criticised for failures at the Somme in 1916 and Passchendaele in 1917; but particularly so after the debacle brought on by the Central Powers' Michael Offensive in spring 1918, when the British Fifth Army came close to collapse. Shortly afterwards he was sacked and replaced by Rawlinson.

Kitchener, had a clear understanding of the essentials, and with the power base of a Secretary of State for War, rapidly set in train, in 1914, the recruitment of five Volunteer New Armies. His decision not develop the Territorial Army was, in the long term, probably an error and made conscription inevitable. His drowning at Sea, while on a mission to Russia, avoided an almost inevitable rapid decline in influence and power.

Plumer emerged from the war as the British soldiers' favourite commander - hence the nickname, given by his Second Army, of 'Daddy'. His outstanding successes in a successful war were at Messines in June 1917, and the later phases of Passchendaele, also in 1917.

Rawlinson was a stalwart supporter of Haig and generally had a successful war on the Western Front. However, in the view of many of his soldiers, he never lived-down the awful tragedy and waste of the 1st July 1916, in the First Battle of the Somme. His Fourth Army of volunteers had confidently gone 'over the top', only to be decimated by the German machine-gunners which, he assured the troops, would be neutralised by the pre-attack artillery bombardment.

Robertson, up from the ranks, was the classic behind-the-front facilitator, giving valued support in his post of Chief of the Imperial General Staff to Haig and the 'Western Front First' campaigners.

Smith-Dorrien was highly competent at all the levels of command he held and, due his seniority, could have pipped Haig to the post of commander BEF. But he was the subject of a vendetta by French and was shunted off to East Africa where illness finished off his career.

Wilson was an accomplished French speaker, which gave him considerable advantage when dealing with the French High Command. It also enabled him to influence the then BEF commander (General French) to accommodate the views of the French High Command. So outspoken was he that many felt he favoured French interests over those of the British. He was particularly noted as an intriguer and was a self acknowledged mischief-maker.

Horne, the eleventh of these British commanders, is pretty much of a military enigma. His name - General Henry Horne of the Royal Artillery - is associated with the famous battles on Western Front in which his First Army participated. But the man is hard to find. He avoided all the usual forms of publicity and his wife destroyed all his records when he died.

3. The 'Dominioneers', Birdwood, Byng, Currie and Monash.

Whilst Byng and Birdwood were not themselves from the Dominions, both led Dominion troops with some distinction for much of the war: Birdwood the ANZACs and Byng the Canadians. Byng also had success with the Third Army at Cambrai and against the German Michael Offensive in 1918.

After understudying their respective mentors, Currie took over the Canadians and Monash the ANZACs. Though neither was serving army officer before the war, both achieved exceptional learning curves to lead their armies with distinction and considerable success until the Armistice.

All four of these 'Dominion' officers retained the affection of their troops until they died.

4. Pershing.

By nature a cautious man, Pershing caused considerable delays in the incorporation of his new American Army into the Allies command structure. His insistence on Americans being commanded and led by Americans caused unnecessarily high casualties due to their initial total lack of experience of trench warfare. But there is no doubt that the threat of Pershing's growing armies, and America's extraordinary potential for the production of war material, greatly influenced the strategy of the Central Powers and aided in their final capitulation.

5. The French triumvirate; Joffre, Foch and Pétain.

The French Army lost its ability to win the war when in 1914 poor strategy and even poorer tactics cost them the crème de la crème of their huge army - and particularly their officer class - in a largely fruitless campaign of obsessive attacks in France itself and Alsace-Lorraine. Attacks that produced 1 million French casualties between August and December 1914.

Joffre imposed some order into this maelstrom and crushed the Schlieffen Plan offensive at the gates of Paris. Shortly afterwards he was shuffled aside, largely because his enormous casualty lists. Like all the French commanders, he had been saddled by the national policy of l'offensive à l'outrance (the all-out offensive) whereby rational tactics were often set aside in frenetic displays of elan. This tactic wreaked huge casualties on the Central Powers, but tore out the heart of the largely conscript French army. The result was a general malaise militaire that was further engendered by the total war of the Verdun campaign to levels of widespread mutiny in the army. The army never really fully recovered from this collective trauma.

Pétain was approaching retirement age in 1914, but with his emphasis on firepower if, perhaps, rather cautious, soon made a reputation for reliability. He was rightly acclaimed as the saviour of Verdun. In 1917, he was called to quell the widespread mutinies in the French army and used firm (412 death sentences and 49 executions) but fairer methods to bring it back from the edge of total collapse. He slowly induced it back to a lower, but effective, combative level.

Foch led with some distinction throughout much of the war and may be considered as the most confident of the commanders of the Great War; although he was rather disdainful about the affect of casualties on morale. In the early part of the war he was rather overshadowed by Joffre and suffered by association when Joffre fell from grace. In late 1917, he was called back from restoring morale in the Italian Army and in the role of Supreme commander, he masterly co-ordinated the resistance to the German 1918 Michael Offensive. Then, in the autumn of 1918, he led the Allies in the triumphant campaign which produced the collapse of the Axis armies and the November Armistice. (The exclusion here of Nivelle is easily justified by the total eclipse of his momentary rising star in the costly offensive of the Chemin des Dames Sector in 1917. The ensuing debacle played a prominent part in the fomenting of the 1917 mutinies in the French Army. Court marshalled for incompetence; he was sacked and abruptly dispatched to the dim reaches of the French colonies in North Africa for the remainder of the war. Perhaps, a fitting downfall for this military mountebank promoted by the politicians - Lloyd George included - beyond the limits of his competence).

6. The quadripartite Prussian leadership of the Central Powers; Falkenhayn, Hindenburg, Ludendorff and Moltke.

Falkenhayn fought all his battles the hard way. His plan 'to bleed the French Army white' at Verdun and his fierce response to the Anglo-French Somme Offensive, produced horrendous casualties on a scale previously unheard of on the Western Front. Stressed by these efforts he left the High Command in August 1916. Spurning a diplomatic post in Turkey, he chose instead a command in Rumania with the Ninth Army and led it in 1917-18 through several successful offensives.

Hindenburg was much more than figurehead behind which Ludendorff could practice his strategic and tactical magic with the immense armies of the Central Powers. He represented for the German people the much needed stability and hope for victory as the prospect of a long and hard war became ever more apparent. He truly deserved the acclaim he received for the early victories he shared with Ludendorff on both the Eastern and Western Fronts. And he did much to channel Ludendorff's often-wayward military genius into success on the battlefield, with the notable exception of the ill-fated Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser's Battle) from March to July 1918. His support for the unrestricted submarine warfare and the progressive militarisation of German politics were uncharacteristically ill-judged whilst his continuing in office - post the Michael Offensive in 1918 - to facilitate the agreement of an Armistice, was a clear return to a more realistic common-sense approach.

Ludendorff, a rather violent and abusive man, was without question the leading Commander of the Central Powers. Under the benign guidance of Hindenburg he was able to launch his strategic concept of total war and militarised politics with exceptional success. With Moltke he was able to influence the development of the Schlieffen Plan and enlarge the German Army to permit the scale of warfare he envisaged. Transferred to the Eastern Front in 1914, he rapidly neutralised the offensive capabilities of the Russian Army. His concordat with Hindenburg on the Western Front, after the trauma of Verdun, allowed him to introduce modern weapons and new tactics to trench warfare and further militarise the State. The failure of his new German Army to capitalise on the early successes of the Michael Offensive in March/April 1918 led to a nervous breakdown and his retirement from the scene before the Armistice.

Moltke was that most pathetic of commanders, one promoted beyond his competence through the aura cast by a close relative of renown; his famous uncle. After fiddling with the Schlieffen Plan to its detriment, he totally lost his nerve when things did not go to plan and relinquished his command after only 5 weeks of war. It is probably no exaggeration to say he lost the only real chance Germany had to win the war.

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