At first sight, the neophyte amateur war historian may find the nomenclature of the war of 1914-1918 rather confusing. For many years, it was called the Great War and then, from 1939 on, when the Second World War broke out, it became known as the First World War (also written as WW1). However, many war historians, this author included, have tended to retain the original term – The Great War.
Similarly, the proto-war historian will soon be challenged by various views about the reputations of the British senior generals (and field marshals); particularly so those who served on the Western Front. On the one hand, there are the records of the adulation and rewards that rained down on them when the war was won, and on the other, the literary and verbal brick-bats that soon followed and were liberally cast at them; along with slanders and libels such as ‘British soldiers were lions led by donkeys’, ‘Butchers of the Somme’ and the like.
However, in recent years – the Great War ended over 90 years ago – several eminent war historians have once again come to the aid of the reputations of these generals. These modern historians claim that many of the adverse assessments did not take in the reality of the situation, and the standards and mores that existed at the time. Also they blame certain politicians at the time for ‘clouding the water’ in a self-serving way. Certainly, the impartial observer reading the post-war memoir and writings of Mr. David Lloyd George, war-time holder of the posts of Chancellor of the Exchequer, Minister of Munitions, Secretary of State for War and Prime Minister, would find them to be at a distinct self-serving variance to what the reader will have learned from other authoritative sources.
Seeing it coming
Apparently, with the possible exception of Field Marshal Lord Herbert Horatio Kitchener, Secretary of State for War in 1914, none of principal British generals clearly foresaw the scale and industrial intensity of the war that descended on Europe. Or the technological changes that would transform the nature of the battlefield, the role of the soldiers who fought there, and the minds of the men who commanded them.
If, indeed, some British generals did see a European War in the offing, they refused to accept it for what it was, and expected the future to look after itself, with the help of the Royal Navy, or be looked after by someone else entirely without dragging the British Empire into the messy cockpit of Europe.
Consequently, when the European War (it only became the Great War in due course) in all its reality was unexpectedly thrust upon the British Empire on August 4th, 1914, there was a mad scramble to get a British Expeditionary Force (BEF) into Europe that would go to the aid of Britain’s Allies, Belgium and France against the ruthless onslaught of Germany and its cohorts.
On the positive side, the majority of the British Army’s senior officers – although relatively few in number - had been constantly embroiled in the many colonial wars of the Empire, and had long experience on these battlefields, e.g. Southern, Western and Eastern Africa, Sudan, Egypt, China and the North West Frontier of India. Of course, as we shall see, even some of the most senior serving officers failed to perform to the required high standard. Indeed, in a recent British television programme the grandson (Dan Snow) of a former British Western Front general, Thomas D’Oyly (Slush) Snow, GOC VII Corps, stated that his grandfather had admitted to his family after his early retirement in 1918 that he had left the army because he had been increasingly overwhelmed by it all and had “just had not known what to do.” Apropos of which, the future-to-be Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery was recorded as saying ‘Snow was of course quite useless; he was an old man (60) and ought to have been sent home long before.’ And, reportedly, Allenby (idem.) also considered sending Snow home for a lack-lustre performance as early as during the First Battle of the Somme in July 1916.
Additionally, in the early days of the war, many former senior serving officers were hurriedly brought back into the armed forces to serve Queen and country once again – the so-called ‘dug-outs’. But some were found wanting due to age, unwillingness or a lack of competence/fitness. Most of these were sent back into retirement before the first year of the war was over, being rather a case of injudicious selection than one of a personal dereliction of duty.
The Good, the Bad and the Unprepared
From the outset, it is obvious that not all of the British generals could have been entirely good, completely bad, or unprepared for high command when it came. And, moreover, they were not responsible as a group for all the many misfortunes that befell the BEF. Equally, it is not just that the blame for the disasters on the Western Front – again there were many – should fall squarely on the shoulders of either of the senior-most commanding officers of the BEF’s i.e. French (idem.) and Haig (idem.) They both were, after all, to some degree restricted by the qualities of the men they were given to command, the matériel provided to them to wage the war, and the considerable ability of the enemy to ruthlessly exploit the individual and the collective vulnerabilities of both men and matériel.
What seems to be a more reasonable approach for the unbiased observer is that there were indeed some generals who were both good and professional soldiers – at least most of the time – some who were largely proficient if generally uninspired, and others who were found lacking to an increasing degree to the point where they created more harm than good, and should be labelled as such. Luck and circumstance also played an important and capricious role in military success and failure, and should also be taken into consideration.
Recent diligent research has done much to separate the sheep from the goats, although certain personal biases may expected from observer to observer, depending on the personal viewpoint held, any hobby-horse to be exercised, or axe to be ground.
With the exception of the senior Commonwealth generals, such as Currie (Canada), Monash (Australia) and the extraordinary British country-boy-cum-private soldier (Robertson), who uniquely became a field marshal, all of the British generals/field marshals discussed here came from the aristocracy, the landed gentry, army/navy families or the upper levels of the professional classes.
All were educated at public schools or privately, and in their late teens/early twenties joined the British Army (with the exception of French who initially joined the Royal Navy) as officer cadets and were commissioned in various regiments of artillery, infantry and cavalry manned entirely by professional soldiers.
A considerable part of all the generals’ careers prior to 1914 were spent as peacemakers and administrators in the wide-flung outposts of the British Empire, under the ever present protective shield of the all-powerful Royal Navy: some gained glory and fame in the process,
Accordingly, the Great War must have come as somewhat of a shock to them as the continental armies of millions of conscript troops manoeuvred across international borders by means of an extensive and efficient railway network to stage what was quickly to become ‘total war’. Initially, the British contribution to the alliance - the 100,000 strong BEF - was relatively small, but efficient, until an entirely new concept of a million strong ‘civilian army’ could be created and trained in the UK. The British Army was very much the junior partner to the French for a considerable part of the war.
If anything, the Victorian/Edwardian social restraints of class and position were even stronger in the British Army than in civilian life; hierarchy reigned supreme. The officer class expected to command and the ‘men’ were expected, and expected, to defer and obey. The higher the rank the more distant and aloof the officers tended to be. Soldiers in the trenches often didn’t even know their staff officer’s names, and if they saw them it was usually at a distance mounted on a horse across a parade ground.
Somehow, under these difficult scenarios most of the senior commanders of British Army eventually found a way to survive the many trials and tribulations that they were subjected to, to emerge as a dominant force in the alliance. They gradually created an experienced, well equipped and competent British (and Commonwealth) Army. An army that would take the lead in the alliance that fought the vaunted German Army and its allies to a stand-still, and defeat, on the Western Front and across the globe.
1. It will be noted that neither General Arthur William Currie nor General John Monash appears in the following list. Neither was British by nationality, nor a professional soldier. Currie was a Canadian former insurance broker, and Monash a former Australian civil engineer. Prior to the Great War both had served in the civilian militia of their respective countries. However, detailed accounts of their extraordinary careers as senior Dominion Army officers on the Western Front can be seen elsewhere on this website.
2. In order to simplify an already complicated narrative, neither the many changes in general rank, nor honours awarded to the individuals concerned, are given. All the officers listed were, or achieved, the rank of general, or field marshal, during the period of the fighting on the Western Front -1914 to 1918 - and are so identified. However, care has been taken to detail the description of the commands held at various periods ie Commander-In-Chief (C-in-C), BEF etc.
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