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The Terrible Generals of the Great War

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The British military brain trust equipped with mandatory mustaches at the war's end.

The British military brain trust equipped with mandatory mustaches at the war's end.

Quartermaster Sergeant Scott Macfie of the King’s Liverpool Regiment leaves us in no doubt about where he stood on the skill, or lack thereof, of Allied generalship. In 1916, he wrote: “The want of preparation, the vague orders, the ignorance of the objective and geography, the absurd haste, and in general the horrid bungling were scandalous. After two years of war it seems that our higher commanders are still without common sense. In any well-regulated organization a divisional commander would be shot for incompetence―here another regiment is ordered to attempt the same task in the same maddening way.”

‘Good-morning; good-morning!’ the General said

When we met him last week on our way to the line.

Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,

And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.

‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack

As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

— Great War poet Siegfried Sassoon

“Lions Led by Donkeys”

The origin of the phrase above is murky but it has come to summarize the widely held belief that Allied generals were blundering idiots who ordered brave soldiers into near-suicidal attacks.

In 1917, Arthur Guy Empey wrote about the opinion of many towards the British generals who were in charge of First World War strategy. In his book Over the Top Empey commented, “German snipers get paid rewards for killing the English . . . For killing or wounding an English private, the sniper gets one mark. For killing or wounding an English officer he gets five marks . . .”

However, Empey added that should a German marksman take out a British general he could expect a punishment of 21 days being tied to the wheel of a cart: “If all the English generals were killed, there would be no one left to make costly mistakes.”

Oh What a Lovely War Movie Parody

Early War Stalemate

Within months of the start of the First World War the German advance into France had become stalled.

In their book The Trenches, Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler write that, “. . . a gigantic gash had been scratched across the face of Europe. From the North Sea to the Alps, two opposing lines of trenches had been dug.”

In 1915, Allied forces under General Sir John French had tried to break the stalemate with frontal assaults against German trenches. Losses were devastating and little ground was taken.

General French became exhausted and demoralized and was replaced by General (later Field Marshal) Sir Douglas Haig in December 1915. Forces from the British Empire also came under Haig’s orders.

He was trained as a cavalry officer and never shed his belief in the value of men on horseback charging the enemy. “The machine gun is overrated,” he said “especially against the horse.”

Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig.

Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig.

An article in Military Magazine notes that “Haig continued to believe in the cavalry long after the war that he was actually fighting―World War I―had proven mounted soldiers absurdly vulnerable and obsolete.”

Back in field headquarters, generals and staff officers puzzled over how to deal with this new kind of warfare. Their first idea was to throw large numbers of men at the defensive lines in an attempt to overrun the trenches and break into open ground behind.

That didn’t work. So the generals decided to repeat the same plan over and over again.

Wounded French, British, and Italian soldiers; many are smiling, no doubt glad to be out of it.

Wounded French, British, and Italian soldiers; many are smiling, no doubt glad to be out of it.

Battle of the Somme

A typical and tragic example of the frontal attack was the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

Spartacus Educational says the plan was suggested by the French Commander-in-Chief, Joseph Joffre and accepted by General Haig.

During an eight-day bombardment, 1.7 million artillery rounds were fired at the German positions. But many of the rounds were duds that never exploded. First World notes that “even today farmers of the Western Front unearth many tons of unexploded ‘iron harvest’ each year.”

Then, at 7.30 a.m. on July 1, 1916, the infantry began its advance over No Man’s Land; the British and French threw 750,000 men into the battle on the first day alone.

The artillery bombardment was supposed to destroy the German barbed wire; it didn’t. The shells were supposed to pulverize the German trenches; they didn’t.

No single objective was gained on the first day of battle.

In 1985, the BBC interviewed Will Marshall, a survivor of the attack. He said the orders were “To go over the top, walk quietly for twenty yards and stop for two minutes, all in a line. We were sitting ducks . . . We had no choice. If you’d have gone back there were officers in our own trenches with a pistol with the orders to shoot you.”

Within minutes, Will Marshall only had two companions left for 60 yards on either side of him. One British observer likened the lines of dead to “swathes of cut corn at harvest time.”

A total of 720 men in Will Marshall’s battalion took part in that attack. Within minutes, 584 of them were either killed, wounded, or missing.

Five Months of Slaughter

It wasn’t until mid-November, when snow started to fall, that the generals finally recognized the failure of their plan and called off the attack.

By the time the Battle of the Somme was halted, the British and Empire forces had suffered 420,000 casualties. The French lost nearly 200,000, and it is estimated that German casualties were in the region of 500,000. Allied forces gained some ground but it reached only 12 km at its deepest points.

Haig seemed to show a cold disregard for the sacrifices his soldiers made. At the end of the first day of the Battle of the Somme he was told that total casualties were estimated at more than 40,000 (they were in excess of 58,000).

In his diary the following day he wrote that the number of killed and wounded “. . . cannot be considered severe in view of the numbers engaged, and the length of the front attacked . . .”

His defenders say the apparent lack of concern was simply the “mask of command.” Any general who allowed himself to be distressed about ordering men into battle would crack under the strain.

Britain’s Prime Minister David Lloyd George began to question Haig’s fitness to command as pointed out by Matt Seaton in The Guardian: “Lloyd George settled his personal score with Haig with the damning phrase ‘brilliant to the top of his army boots.’ ”

Passchendaele, Also Known as the Third Battle of Ypres

Field Marshall Haig seemed to learn nothing from the slaughter of the Battle of the Somme.

At the end of July 1917, Haig launched an attack against Passchendaele Ridge near the Belgian town of Ypres.

He used the same tactics as with the Battle of the Somme a year earlier, with the same result―massive loss of life and very little advance.

A ten-day artillery barrage (3,000 guns firing four and a quarter million shells) gave the German defenders ample warning an infantry attack was coming. When it did, the slaughter of the Somme was repeated, waves of attackers mowed down by machine-gun fire.

The shelling destroyed the drainage systems in the low-lying ground and pock-marked the battlefield with water-filled craters. Heavy rain turned the soil into mud. But, still men were ordered into the attack across what had become a nearly impassable swamp. The offensive ground to a halt and Field Marshall Haig gained a new nickname―“Butcher.”

The whole fiasco cost 275,000 Allied casualties and 220,000 German dead and wounded. Strategically, it achieved virtually nothing.

The mud of Passchendaele.

The mud of Passchendaele.

Slaughter in Gallipoli

The Great War wasn’t just fought on the Western Front, and neither was it the only place where bungling leaders operated.

The military minds, among them Winston Churchill, came up with a plan to knock Turkey out of the war. Troops were to land on the rugged Gallipoli Peninsula at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea; they were to sweep up the peninsula rapidly and take the Ottoman capital, Constantinople (today’s Istanbul).

Military historian Peter Hart describes the scheme as “Nonsense.”

The British commander was General Sir Ian Hamilton and he and his senior officers believed the Turks would be a push over. They weren’t.

The entire shambles cost 250,000 Allied casualties, many from disease; Turkish losses were the same. Australian and New Zealand forces suffered the most casualties and the disastrous expedition is very much remembered today with sorrow in those countries.

General Hamilton in a Gallipoli trench.

General Hamilton in a Gallipoli trench.

Bonus Factoids

  • On November 11, 1918, the day the war ended, Field Marshall Haig ordered attacks that cost lives even though he knew the ceasefire would come into effect at 11 a.m.
  • Lieutenant was the lowest officer rank in the British and Empire forces. Officially, they were called subalterns; unofficially they were often referred to as “warts.” They had to be the first ones over the lip of the trench and by this display of reckless courage inspire their men to follow.
  • The life expectancy of a lieutenant in the Western Front was just six weeks.
  • The massive bloodshed prompted the American writer Gertrude Stein to call those who went into the trenches “The Lost Generation.”
  • According to the BBC's Quite Interesting program "If all the British Empire’s dead of the First World War were to march four abreast down Whitehall, it would take them almost four days and nights to pass the Cenotaph."


  • “How Haig Fought the Kaiser - and Lloyd George.” Matt Seaton, The Guardian, March 19, 2005.
  • “The Western Front: Lions Led by Donkeys?” Dr. Gary Sheffield, BBC History, March 10, 2011.
  • “Battle of the Somme, 1916.” Michael Duffy, First World,
  • “Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig: World War I’s Worst General.” Military Magazine, May 11, 2007.
  • “The Trenches.” Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler, G.P. Putnam, New York, 1978.
  • “British Generalship during the Great War.” Simon Robbins, Ashgate Publishing, September 2010.
  • “The Illustrated History of World War One.” Ian Westwell, Anness Publishing, 2010.
  • “Gallipoli, What Went Wrong.” Peter Hart, British History Magazine, 2013.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Rupert Taylor


Jacqueline Stamp from UK on July 15, 2017:

A fascinating read, with interesting and entertaining video clips. My grandfather was a survivor of the Battle of the Somme, and my father has his medals, but he never spoke about it - and I suppose we never asked! He died aged 85 in the early 1970s. Such a sweet old man; it's heartrending to think of the things he must have witnessed and endured in his youth.

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on July 14, 2017:

That was really interesting to read. The Battle of the Somme was terrible.