Lions or Donkeys? Lions or Donkeys?
Generalship In The Great War
with Scott Elaurant

The Controversy
The Great War, 1914 to 1918, immediately conjures up images of death, destruction, and horror on a vast scale. Trench warfare, mud, gas, and huge losses combine to form a grim impression of suffering and inevitable death, as brave infantry advance futilely towards machine-guns.

Unsurprisingly, those responsible for ordering such events have received heavy criticism. The term Lions led by Donkeys has been applied by surviving soldiers and many writers to the Generals of the Great War, especially on the Allied side, particularly the British.
Even Turkish Army military historian Mesut Uyar reached the same conclusion of the Allied generalship in the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign.

In recent years, several British historians have challenged this view, defending the British commander General Douglas Haig in particular, who was the target of much of the criticism. They point out the enormous difficulties Great War generals faced: dealing with new technology; huge, badly trained armies; and a lack of adequate communications and tactical doctrines. The question remains: were the Great War generals really donkeys, or just victims of circumstance?
Great War
The Great War of 1914-18 was global in its reach. Yet this global conflict would be decided by the mighty clashes upon the battlefields of Europe.

Learn more about Great War here...
Great War
A Crisis in Leadership
One hundred years later, it’s easy to forget the scale of destruction which occurred in many of the battles during World War One. The war destroyed four empires: the Austrian, German, Russian, and Turkish.  Even the victorious suffered; Britain was crippled and France, with the Death of a Generation, was also left with catastrophic debts. The power of the British Empire was fatally wounded, and would soon be surpassed by America in the West, and Japan in the East.

The Human Cost Of Great War
Advancing troops in 19th-century infantry formations towards modern machine-guns, rifles and artillery was murderous. The ten largest battles of the Great War all saw more casualties than the battles of Kursk and Normandy in World War Two. The French lost more men at Verdun than Napoleon lost invading Russia. The British Army lost more men at the Somme than it lost in the entire 15 years of the Napoleonic Wars.

Year Casualties Suffered
First Marne
German Attack Fails
British Attack Fails
German Attack Fails
Gorlice Tarnow Offensive
German Attack Succeeds
Russian Attacks Fails
The Somme
British Attack Fails

Third Ypres (Passchendaele)

British Attack Fails
Nivelle Offensive
French Attack Fails
Spring Offensive
German Attack Fails
Hundred Days
Allied Breakthrough
World War Two Battles
Casualties Suffered Outcome
German Attack Fails
Allied Breakthrough
Lions or Donkeys?
At first the civilian population did not realise the extent of the disasters. Strict censorship and military propaganda hid the losses and exaggerated both the reasons for fighting and the value of territory gained. When British General Haig died in 1929 he was given a state funeral with thousands of mourners present. But as fuller accounts of the war were written and the true losses became appreciated, attitudes against the war hardened from the 1930s onwards.

For many military analysts, World War One is seen as a low point in the history of military tactics and strategy. To a greater or lesser extent, this was true for all sides. None had experience in handling the new weapons or the massive conscript armies that modern industrialisation could deliver to the frontlines. New tactics had to be learnt the hard way; some learnt them faster than others.

The Donkeys
At the start of the war General John French had been commander of the British Expeditionary Force (or BEF). He had originally joined the Navy and only transferred to the army after discovering a tendency to seasickness. He was a cavalry officer, impulsive, and his career was nearly ended by a scandalous affair. He was stubborn and far from bright, having only obtained an average certificate as a Midshipman. Yet he was also courageous and had been a successful cavalry commander during the Boer War. French had difficulty cooperating with his French allies in 1914, and in coping with the stress of command. After First Ypres he sacked one of his best Corps commanders, General Horace Smith-Dorien, with whom he had a prior personality clash. He was replaced by Douglas Haig in 1915.
Lions or Donkeys? Haig’s methods were ruthless at the cost of soldiers' morale. He personally ordered the execution of more than 300 soldiers for cowardice in the face of the enemy, and then promptly lied about the process to parliament. Yet it may be going too far to call Haig a sociopath. After the war he spent great efforts working for greater government support for wounded veterans. His views on discipline once again reflected Haig’s rigid thinking and inability to accept non-conformity to orders.

Defenders of Haig argue that he suffered from an incompetent staff and subordinates for at least the first half of the war. This is true. For example his chief of staff General Launcelot Kiggell hated the French and struggled to co-exist with them. Corps commander General Richard Haking was regarded as a wanton butcher even by his contemporaries. He ordered an attack at Frommelles that was regarded as totally unnecessary by his subordinates. General Stopforth at Gallipoli ordered the invading troops to halt when they should have advanced unopposed. In short, Haig was a donkey, but at the start of the war he was one of many, and by no means the worst.

The French generals were at first not as bad as the British. The Army Chief in 1914, General Joseph 'Papa' Joffre was a calm, organised commander who held the French and British forces together in the initial retreat, until the Allied victory at the First Battle of the Marne. He dismissed passive commanders like Lanrezac and promoted aggressive ones like d’Esperey. Joffre was a leader and an organiser, but he was no strategist. He removed guns from key French forts before the German attack at Verdun in 1916, where the French army suffered half a million casualties.

Robert Nivelle succeeded Joffre after Verdun. Nivelle had been a competent artillery leader and developed creeping barrages to aid attackers. But he was inflexible, lacked staff experience, and failed to inspire confidence in his subordinates and political masters. He was warned not to start his planned 'Nivelle Offensive' in April 1917. He pressed ahead and it cost the French Army 197,000 casualties in a month, gaining 20,000 German prisoners in return, and failed to break the German lines. By June 1917 mutinies had broken out in 49 divisions – almost half the French Army. Nivelle was replaced by Philip Petain.

Above: Douglas Haig. Right: Robert Nivelle.
Lions or Donkeys?
Britain and France were not alone in sending questionable men to lead large, inexperienced armies. Russia started the war with over 150 divisions and the largest army in Europe. In 1914 Generals Aleksandr Samsonov and Paul von Rennenkampf invaded East Prussia with 800,000 men against only 250,000 defending Germans.

Samsonov was an accomplished cavalry officer with experience in the Boxer Rebellion and the Russo-Japanese War. He had no experience in staff work or commanding infantry. Von Rennenkampf had graduated head of his class at the St Petersberg Military Academy and also served as a successful infantry commander in the Boxer Rebellion. In the Russo-Japanese War, Samsonov accused von Rennenkampf of failing to assist him, and the two remained enemies thereafter. During the invasion of East Prussia their two armies failed to cooperate. At Tannenberg and Masurian Lakes they lost over 300,000 men and their armies were routed back into Russia.

Lions or Donkeys?
German Generals have tended to escape the worst criticism in the Great War, with the rigorous training of the Prussian general staff turning out skilled strategists like Hindenberg and Ludendorff. But there were still a few donkeys in German ranks. At the political and economic level German strategy was terrible. The U-boat offensive eventually brought the USA into the war against Germany. It was launched despite prior US diplomatic warnings of the consequences. Meanwhile the Royal Navy blockade of Germany would eventually cripple its economy, yet there was no plan or strategy to overcome it. In fact, the Prussian general staff, for all their expertise in military tactics, assumed that logistical needs would be dealt with by the government. Under Kaiser Wilhelm’s weak government this would prove to be a fatal mistake.

German Army strategy also had its bad days. The battle of Verdun was intended to bleed the French army white through German superiority in artillery. Yet commanders General Erich von Falkenhayn and Crown Prince Wilhelm became obsessed with capturing the French forts with infantry. In the end they lost 400,000 men doing so, almost as many as the French lost. Falkenhayn again ordered costly German counterattacks at the Somme, to recapture tiny amounts of lost territory of little value. Again, over 200,000 German troops were lost for little gain. Von Falkenhayn was replaced by Hindenberg as military chief later in 1916.

Lions or Donkeys?
The Lions
We have seen then how a generation of very senior, very inflexible, and very badly trained senior officers led their nation’s armies off to war in 1914.  They were the donkeys. But apart from a few exceptions like Haig, the worst commanders were soon replaced. Younger, more energetic commanders worked their way up from lower ranks on the basis of their skill and experience. These were the young lions, and they would change things as soon as they could, efforts of conservative military establishments notwithstanding.

Lions or Donkeys? General Arthur Curry was Canada’s leading soldier of the Great War. Born in Ontario in 1875, Currie was a businessman and reservist soldier before the war. Energetic and intelligent, Currie would not sit passively by even as a member of the peacetime reserve. He studied artillery and marksmanship closely before the war and later the staff course, knowledge that would prove invaluable later.

When war broke out Currie was offered command of a brigade. Under financial pressure from a failed business deal, Curie accepted. He would soon prove his worth. The first action of the Canadian 1st Division was at Ypres in April 1915. As the neighbouring French broke from the German gas attack, and the Canadians began to crumble, Currie stepped in. He remained cool under fire and brought up reserve units to launch an impromptu counterattack, stabilising the front. He was promoted Major General in charge of 1st Division.

Left: Arthur Currie
At the Somme, Currie’s unit was fortunately not part of the initial British attack. Currie instead developed a technique of limited set-piece assaults called Bite and Hold tactics. By the end of the battle the Canadians were the only unit to take their every objective. Later Currie conducted interrogations of surviving officers from the Somme and Verdun to learn what went wrong. Currie taught these lessons to the commanders of all the four Canadian divisions. At the battle of Arras in 1917 Currie organised a well coordinated artillery barrage to precede his infantry. The four Canadian divisions took Vimy Ridge in the only major success of the Battle of Arras. Currie was knighted, and would lead the Canadian Corps for the rest of the war. If there was a lion among Allied commanders, it was Currie.
Currie had a counterpart in the Australian General John Monash. Monash was another amateur soldier, and a brilliant and highly successful civil engineer in Melbourne before the war. He was also a member of the colonial militia. Monash was born into a family of Prussian-origin Jews living in Australia. His background was frowned upon by many establishment figures. This would continue throughout his army career, with media boss Keith Murdoch (grandfather of Rupert) still trying to get him sacked as late as mid-1918.

Despite the continued opposition, Monash’s intellect, reputation and society connections secured him command of 4th Brigade AIF by the end of 1914. Monash’s introduction to battle was on the bloody slopes of Gallipoli. Victory here was beyond the Australians, but Monash used his engineering and organisational skills to improve the trenches and living conditions in his brigade’s area. After the evacuation it rested in Egypt before embarking for France in 1916.

Right: John Monash.
Lions or Donkeys?
In 1916 Monash was appointed commander of the Australian 3rd Division. He trained them very thoroughly in England before deployment to France. Through the battles of Messines and Passchendaele his unit performed better than most. Monash was a careful planner, and learnt to coordinate infantry, artillery, tanks and aircraft. In April 1918 at the battle of Villers Bretonneux, his unit turned back the German advance and stopped the Spring Offensive. Monash was promoted to commander of the Australian Corps. They would go on to play key roles in the climactic 1918 fighting at the battles of Hamel, Amiens and Mont St. Quentin. The German Army was pushed back and finally defeated, with his Australian Corps leading the way. Monash returned home a national hero.
Lions or Donkeys? General Herbert Plumer was another older British commander who had experience as an infantry commander during the Sudanese campaign and Boer War. He was regarded as thorough, reliable and experienced. A contemporary of Haig, were it not for top-level intrigues he might equally have ended up as British commander on the Western Front. Unlike Haig, Plumer was modest and lacked the offensive spirit of the cavalryman. He was a meticulous planner who took great care to minimise losses. Plumer was a bulldog more than a lion, and good at his job.

Plumer took command of British V Corps in 1915 before the Second Battle of Ypres.  This would be the first time Allied troops encountered the use of poison gas by the Germans.  Plumer was appointed Second Army commander during the battle.  He helped stabilise the line with counterattacks by British and Canadian troops after the initial shock of the gas attack.

Left: Herbert Plumer.
Plumer was one of the commanders who learnt the lessons of trench warfare. He was not a grand strategist, but a good tactician. He favoured limited Bite and Hold attacks with good preparation. His ultimate success was at the battle of Messines Ridge in 1917. Here extensive tunneling operations were used to place nineteen huge mines under German trenches before the start of the battle. Their detonation all but annihilated the German frontline, and Plumer’s troops took the German positions with minimal losses. Haig’s order to halt the advance when the start line for his following major offensive at Passchendaele was reached and prevented even more from being achieved. Plumer went on to successfully command a British relief army in Italy and during the final Hundred Days offensive in 1918.
If there was a lion among commanders in the Great War, then Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was that lion. Atatürk was not only a highly successful general, but also political strategist, social reformer, and eventually the father of the modern Turkish State. Atatürk was born into a time of change in the conservative Ottoman Turkish Empire. He went to a civic school where he was a bright student, and then military academy, eschewing religious schooling. Atatürk has become a mythical figure in Turkish history, and aspects of his life are debated. Whatever the truth, Mustafa was energetic, intelligent, and driven. He was a reforming officer, who longed to see the Muslim Turkish Empire replaced by a modern Turkish State.

Atatürk first saw combat in Libya in the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-12. Next he served in the First and Second Balkan Wars of 1912-13, when Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria combined to force Turkey out of its former European provinces. By the time of the Allied invasion at Gallipoli in 1915, Atatürk was a Colonel leading the 19th Division.  At Gallipoli, Ataturk was the first German or Turkish officer to realise the location and intention of the British attack. He moved to the frontline and took charge of the defence personally, stopping the attackers despite a shortage of supplies and equipment. The battle would make his career.

Right: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Lions or Donkeys?
After Gallipoli, Atatürk moved up to Corps and then Army command, successfully fighting the Russians in the Caucasus in 1917 and the Allies in Syria in 1918. By the end of the war Ottoman Turkey was collapsing. Atatürk joined the side of the Turk nationalists and eventually commanded their army. By 1923 they had swept intervening foreign forces from Turkey and defeated the last Ottomans. He became the first head of the new Turkish republic in 1923.

New Ideas
If military leadership had been lacking at the top, the war still produced many innovative thinkers and fine leaders at the lower levels. The searing experiences of the Great War created a generation of officers who learnt from the mistakes and were determined not to repeat them. Examples of this emerged in all the major armies.

In the British Army many tactical innovations came from junior officers. These included the development of tank tactics (Brigadier Elles), trench mortars, efficient gas artillery shells, creeping barrages (General Tudor) and other artillery techniques. The Australian Corps started the careers of Morshead (future defender of Tobruk) and Blamey (future Chief of Staff), as well as most of the generals who would lead Australian forces in World War Two.

The French were among the first to realise the need for different tactics. A form of infiltration tactics were proposed in April 1915. Captain André Laffargue wrote that infantry should attack more spread out, with lighter support weapons to support them. His own regiment did this in late 1915, advancing over a mile.
Lions or Donkeys?
In the German Army a young Erwin Rommel began as an infantry company lieutenant, fighting in France, Romania and Italy with great success. He developed a style of leading from the front and quick movement. He demonstrated courage, quick tactical judgement, and the ability to come up with the unexpected. He was wounded three times and decorated four times, ultimately with the Pour le Merite, then Germany’s highest military award.

The biggest advance in tactics from the entire war came from a seasoned German Captain, Willy Rohr. Rohr realised that attacking machine-guns frontally was futile as early as 1915. He invented what became Storm Trooper tactics or Stosstaktics. Infantry would advance fast and light, looking for weak points and outflanking enemy strong points. Then infantry with heavier weapons would follow up to take them out later. Using these tactics his pioneer company broke through and captured French trenches at Verdun in 1915. By 1918 it was standard doctrine for the entire German army.
Lions or Donkeys?
Summing Up
As with most debates, the truth lies somewhere between the two extremes. Not all Great War Generals were donkeys.  Some were very good. At the lower levels, some genuine tactical innovation occurred and commanders who would be later famous started their careers.

Unfortunately though, there were some donkeys in charge at the very top level in all major armies. They made bad tactical and strategic decisions that caused the pointless deaths of hundreds of thousands of men. They were not all bumbling sociopaths, but they were no military geniuses either; nor were they all British, though General Haig was one of the worst.  Most were aging men, lacking in flexibility, who were badly out of their depth in a fast changing world.  The class-conscious imperial era meant that they were not easily replaced.

~ Scott.

B. H.  Liddel Hart, “History of the First World War”, Faber and Faber, London, 1934.

G.J. Meyer, “A World Undone”, Random House, London, 2007.

P. Griffith, “Battle Tactics of the Western Front”, Yale University Press, London, 1994.

Last Updated On Thursday, August 28, 2014 by Blake at Battlefront