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Military Commanders and the First World War

John Simkin

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Bernard Montgomery, who was a junior officer in the First World War, was highly critical of his senior officers on the Western Front.

The higher staffs were out of touch with the regimental officers and with the troops. The former lived in comfort, which became greater as the distance of their headquarters behind the lines increased. There was no harm in this provided there was touch and sympathy between the staff and the troops. This was often lacking. The frightful casualties appalled me. The so-called "good fighting generals" of the war appeared to me to be those who had a complete disregard for human life.

There is a story of Sir Douglas Haig's Chief of Staff who was to return to England after the heavy fighting during the winter of 1917-18 on the Passchendaele front. Before leaving he said he would like to visit the Passchendaele Ridge and see the country. When he saw the mud and the ghastly conditions under which the soldiers had fought and died, he was horrified and said: "Do you mean to tell me that the soldiers had to fight under such conditions?" And when he was told that it was so, he said: "Why was I never told about this before?"

This view was shared by private soldiers. In an interview in 1993, William Brooks, had this to say about the British military commanders.

The Yanks and the Aussies were disgusted at the way our officers treated us. There were cases where British officers tried to put Yanks or Aussie soldiers in front of a firing-squad but couldn't get away with it. If they had, I reckon those countries would have pulled out of the war and left us to it.

There was a big riot about September 1917 by the Australians at a place called Etaples. They called it "collective indiscipline", what it was was mutiny. It went on for days. I think a couple of military police got killed. Field Marshall Haig would have shot the leaders but dared not of course because they were Aussies.

Haig's nickname was the butcher. He'd think nothing of sending thousands of men to certain death. The utter waste and disregard for human life and human suffering by the so-called educated classes who ran the country. What a wicked waste of life. I'd hate to be in their shoes when they face their Maker.

James Lovegrove, a lieutenant in the British Army during the war was highly critical of all Britain's military commanders.

The military commanders had no respect for human life. General Douglas Haig, later he was made a Field Marshal, cared nothing about casualties. Of course, he was carrying out government policy, because after the war he was knighted and given a lump sum and a massive life-pension. I blame the public schools who bred these ego maniacs. They should never have been in charge of men. Never.

David Lloyd George, the prime minister during the second-half of the war, was also highly critical of the tactics used by his military commanders. In his autobiography he wrote:

It is not too much to say that when the Great War broke out our Generals had the most important lessons of their art to learn. Before they began they had much to unlearn. Their brains were cluttered with useless lumber, packed in every niche and corner. Some of it was never cleared out to the end of the War. They knew nothing except by hearsay about the actual fighting of a battle under modern conditions. Haig ordered many bloody battles in this War. He only took part in two. He never even saw the ground on which his greatest battles were fought, either before or during the fight.

The tale of these battles constitutes a trilogy, illustrating the unquestionable heroism that will never accept defeat and the inexhaustible vanity that will never admit a mistake. It is the story of the million who would rather die than own themselves as cowards - even to themselves - and also of the two or three individuals who would rather the million perish than that they as leaders should own - even to themselves - that they were blunderers. Ought I have vetoed it? Ought I not to have resigned rather than acquiesce in this slaughter of brave men? I have always felt there are solid grounds for criticism in that respect. My sole justification is that Haig promised not to press the attack if it became clear that he could not attain his objectives by continuing the offensive.

Soldiers were also hostile about the rewards that the senior officers received after the war. George Coppard wrote in his autobiography, With A Machine Gun to Cambrai (1969):

I was demobbed a few days after my 21st birthday, after four and a half years of service. My leg had shrunk a bit and I was given a pension of twenty-five shillings per week for six months. Dropping to nine shillings per week for a year, the pension ceased altogether.

During this time the government, in the flush of victory, were busily engaged in fixing the enormous sums to be voted as gratuities to the high-ranking officers who had won the war for them. Heading the formidable list were Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig and Admiral Sir David Beatty. For doing the jobs for which they were paid, each received a tax-free golden handshake of £100,000 (a colossal sum then), an earldom and, I believe, an estate to go with it. Many thousands of pounds went to leaders lower down the scale. Sir Julian Byng picked up a trifle of £30,000 and was made a viscount. If any reader should ask, 'What did the demobbed Tommy think about all this?' I can only say, 'Well, what do you think?'

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  • 2 weeks later...

Interesting stuff, John.

I recall reading that the concept of pensions came into existence after WW1, as a measure by the British Government to remove from public view the maimed and disfigured veterans who had been reduced to begging on the streets. Prior to this the concept was unheard of.

Edited by Mark Stapleton
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