This piece started life as a seminar piece while I was at university studying for my undergraduate degree and to be completely honest my views have not significantly changed. I tend not to agree with the Orthodox opinion of British Generalship and agree with the view that any analysis of their actions is not a simplistic as they make out. This is a brief introduction to what is a complicated and constantly evolving subject. For example, see my review of Elizabeth Greenhalgh’s new book Victory Through Coalition, which is reviewed elsewhere on the blog

The term ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ first came into common usage to describe British military leadership of the Great War when Alan Clark wrote his book The Donkeys.[i] The term is by its very nature polemic and is seen as a method of apportioning blame for what occurred on the western front during the Great War. In Clark’s case he is seeking to lay the blame for the western front squarely at the door of the generals and most notably Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, possible as a means of shifting the blame from politicians, as he was one himself. As Tim Travers comments Clark and other orthodox historians attitudes have, ‘…created …a ‘mud and blood’ image of the First World War, which stressed the horrors of the war and/or the callousness of generals…’[ii]

The former Prime Minister Lloyd George, who sought to blame the generals for the problems of the western front, suggested this opinion of the Great War early on in his memoirs.[iii] The famous military historian Sir Basil Liddell Hart in his books on the Great War, Reputations and The Real War, also picked upon it this interpretation of bad British Generalship.[iv] The historian John Laffin in his book British Butchers and Bunglers of World War One[v] has more recently picked upon the interpretation that the western front generals were both aloof and callous in their actions. As Laffin comments the, ‘…senior generals of World War I were limited in their professionalism, in that they gave orders but when things went wrong did not accept responsibility.’[vi] Laffin carries along on this theme and even later in his book has a chapter entitled ‘Haig, Haking and Gough: Incompetence, Callousness and Vanity’[vii] 

Much of the Orthodox interpretation of the war stems from this apparent aloofness, which the generals are argued to have had, and has evolved into a myth of how the Great War was fought. This myth has seriously been perpetuated by appearance of what passes as school history. War poets such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon are commonly passed off as what the war was and how it was fought and are more commonly taught in English lessons rather than History lessons. As Ian Beckett comments, ‘English teachers have much to answers for in terms of the enduring image of the Great War.’[viii] This myth about the Western Front also has a place in popular culture with the production by the BBC of Blackadder Goes Forth. This has often been passed off as an accurate, yet satirical, view of the Western Front. Therefore, the Orthodox interpretation has sought to apportion blame of the Great War away from the politicians, both pre-war and during the war, and lay it at the door of the Generals. This view has been perpetuated into popular culture through the teaching of the war poets in school and through the media. These interpretations have in the past fifteen to twenty years come in for serious criticism from new school of Revisionist historians who have sought to re-asses this situation. The new spate of revisionists have tended to look at the operational side of the debate in an attempt to balance out the attack on Great War British generalship and as Correlli Barnett comments, ‘…by 1918 Haig and his Army commanders…had proved professionally superior to their German…counterparts…’[ix]

Members of this new school of historians have included Paddy Griffith and Tim Travers. Much of their work has been dedicated to looking at the development of tactics and the usage of new weaponry by the army, most notably the tank and air power and the development of the all-arms battle. They find that the orthodox view is structurally flawed as their histories typically finish on the 1st July 1916, the opening of the Somme offensive and pay scant attention to the latter half of the war.[x] However, as Griffith points out, ‘…tactics were already being reformed in quite significant ways at least as early as…2nd July 1916…’[xi] Therefore, by examining the lower areas of operations Revisionists have been able to show that the British generals on the western front were always looking for methods to improve the way the war was fought and to end it as quickly as possible.

Revisionists also note that by not looking any further into subjects such as command and control and battlefield tactics Orthodox historians have failed to see the complete picture of what revisionist argue as the successes of the war, most notably the ‘Hundred Days’ in 1918.[xii] Revisionists believe that the changes instituted by the General Headquarters of the British Expeditionary Force led to the ending of the war and that the advances that were made in 1918 would not have been possible without them. Advances which were greater than those made in the Italian Campaign of World War II thirty years later. Much work has been done on seeking to understand the performance of the British in the war. Further to this Dr John Bourne at the University of Birmingham has been compiling a computer-based biography of divisional commanders in an attempt to understand tactical as well as operational decision-making.[xiii] Also the Imperial War Museum has started the SHLM Project to compile information on divisional operations in the war.[xiv]

So as can be seen the debate on British military leadership has been very politically charged as the orthodox historians, of whom some politicians are members, have sought to lay blame at the door of the generals. Though Revisionists have attempted to move away from this apportioning of blame at look more at the operational level of the war in order to seek an answer to the question of the effectiveness of British military leadership. Most Revisionists would be reluctant to deny that mistakes were made, such as the first day of the Somme, but what they seek to be made understood was that changes were made. Therefore, if they had not been made then how could the war have been won and as such how could the military hierarchy that was involved in these changes be considered ‘donkeys’. As Revisionists’ vehemently point out the military hierarchy were constantly looking for ways to shorten the war with as few casualties as possible.

Therefore, to only consider the debate from the standpoint of the Orthodox historians are, as Revisionists’ claim, fatally flawed in its methodology as it is missing the whole picture. That is that things did change, new methods were introduced and that to only look up to the first day of Somme is only half of the story of British generalship on the Western Front.

[i] The book was originally published in 1961. The term is taken from a conversation that was apparently held between Colonel Max Hoffman and General Erich Von Ludendorff describing the British army on the western front.
[ii] Tim Travers The Killing Ground: The British Army and the Emergence of Modern Warfare (Routledge, 1990), p. xvii
[iii] Lloyd George’s memoirs, War Memoirs, ran to six volumes and were published between 1933 and 1936.
[iv] Reputations: Ten Years On was originally published in 1928 and then The Real War 1914 – 1918 was published in 1930. Both attempted to lay the blame of the war at the Generals’ feet.
[v] John Laffin British Butchers and Bunglers of World War One (Sutton Publishing, 1992). This book picks up to a large extent were Clark left off and seeks to re-interpret what he considers pre-conceived myth about the war.
[vi] John Laffin Butchers, p. 3
[vii] John Laffin Butchers, pp. 79 – 89
[viii] Ian Beckett, ‘The Military Historian and the Popular Image of the Western Front, 1914 – 1918’ The Historian, No. 53 (1997:Spring), p. 11
[ix] Correlli Barnett ‘Saturday Essay’ Daily Mail, June 29 1996
[x] For example see Martin Middlebrook’s The First Day on the Somme: 1st July 1916 (Penguin, 2001). This book, first published in 1971, is typical of the orthodox stance, dealing with as the title suggests with the 1st July 1916.
[xi] Paddy Griffith (Ed.) British Fighting Methods in the Great War (Frank Cass, 1996) p. xii
[xii] See for example been Martin Samuels Command or Control?: Command, Training and Tactics in the British and German Armies, 1888 – 1918 (Frank Cass, 1995) on the subject of command and control and the more recent Gary Sheffield and Dan Todman (Eds.) Command and Control on the Western Front: The British Army’s Experience, 1914 – 19 (Spellmount, 2004), which offers a more detailed and up to date insight. On the issue of battlefield tactics see Paddy Griffith (1994) Battle Tactics of the Western Front: The British Army’s Art of Attack 1916 – 1918 (Yale University Press, 1994) and his edited work Paddy Griffith (Ed.) British Fighting Methods.
[xiii] The fruits of this labour is to be soon published in book format but much of it can be seen on the Centre for First World War Studies webpage;

[xiv] A good introduction to this project is John Lee’s chapter ‘The SHLM Project – Assessing the Battle Performance of British Divisions’ in Paddy Griffith (Ed.) British Fighting Methods, pp. 175 – 181


5 thoughts on “Lions led by Donkeys?

  1. Interesting thoughts. I am writing the life of Alan Clark (to be published 2009 in UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson). I shall show conclusively that the exchange between Hoffman and Ludendorff did not take place. This doesn’t devalue ‘Lions led by donkeys’ – just the source. – Ion Trewin

  2. Simon – I am familiar with the forum. A great resource. Interestihng thread. Now I think about I do remember hearing about a similar comment being applied to the French. I suppose it is a comment that can be applied to many wars. Unfortuanatly, it is one that should not be applied to British generalship of the First World War, IMHO.


  3. Ion Trewin, could you please share some evidence of the conversation between lundendroff never taling place please, i am currently doing my A2 History coursework on lions led by donkeys and would be interested on the evidence you speak of.

    thanks for the information aswell really helpful.

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