Wednesday, May 13, 2015

"Lions led by donkeys"

"Lions led by donkeys" is a phrase popularly used to describe the British infantry of World War I and to condemn the generals who commanded them. The contention is that the brave soldiers (lions) were sent to their deaths by incompetent and indifferent leaders (donkeys). The phrase was the source of the title of one of the most scathing examinations of British First World War generals, The Donkeys - a study of the 1915 Western Front offensives - by politician and writer of military histories Alan Clark. The book was representative of much First World War history produced in the 1960s and was not outside the mainstream—Basil Liddell Hart vetted Clark's drafts—and helped to form the predominant popular view of the First World War (in the English-speaking world) in the decades that followed. However, the work and its viewpoint of incompetent military leaders have both been subject to attempts at revisionism.

Brian Bond, in editing a 1991 collection of essays on First World War history, expressed the collective desire of the authors to move beyond "popular stereotypes of The Donkeys," while also acknowledging that serious leadership mistakes were made and that the authors would do little to rehabilitate the reputations of, for instance, the senior commanders on The Somme. For example, Hew Strachan, in that collection of essays, quoted Maurice Genevoix for the proposition "[i]f it is neither desirable nor good that the professional historian prevail over the veteran; it is also not good that the veteran prevail over the historian" and then proceeded to take Liddell Hart to task for "suppressing the culminating battles of the war" thus "allow[ing] his portrayal of British generals to assume an easy continuum, from incompetence on the Western Front to conservatism in the 1920s...." While British leadership at the beginning of the war made mistakes that were extremely costly, by 1915/16 the General staff were making great efforts to lessen the casualties taken during attacks through both tactics (night attacks, creeping barrage etc) and weapons technology (poison gas and later the arrival of the tank). British generals were not the only ones to make mistakes about the nature of modern conflict: Russian armies too suffered badly during the first years of the war, most notably at the Battle of Tannenberg. To many generals who had fought colonial wars during the second half of the 19th century, where the Napoleonic concepts of discipline and pitched battles were still successful, fighting another highly industrialized power with equal and sometimes superior technology required an extreme change in thinking.

Later, Strachan, in reviewing Aspects of the British experience of the First World War edited by Michael Howard, observed that "In the study of the First World War in particular, the divide between professionals and amateurs has never been firmly fixed." He points out that revisionists take strong exception to the amateurs, particularly in the media, with whom they disagree, while at the same time Gary Sheffield welcomes to the revisionist cause the work of many "hobby"-ists who only later migrated to academic study. Major Corrigan, for example, did not even consider Clark to be a historian. The phrase "lions led by donkeys" has been said to have produced a false, or at least very incomplete, picture of generalship in the First World War, giving an impression of Generals as "chateau Generals", living in splendour, indifferent to the sufferings of the men under their command, only interested in cavalry charges, and ultimately, cowards. One historian wrote that "the idea that they were indifferent to the sufferings of their men is constantly refuted by the facts, and only endures because some commentators wish to perpetuate the myth that these generals, representing the upper classes, did not give a damn what happened to the lower orders" Some current academic opinion has described this school of thought as "discredited".

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