Saturday, January 1, 2022

The British Generals at the Dawn of World War One

Generals French, Joffre and Haig
taking a tour of the front. Joffre (center)
was leader of the armies of France.
"Apparently, with the possible exception of Field Marshal Lord Herbert Horatio Kitchener, Secretary of State for War in 1914, none of principal British generals clearly foresaw the scale and industrial intensity of the war that descended on Europe. Or the technological changes that would transform the nature of the battlefield, the role of the soldiers who fought there, and the minds of the men who commanded them."--Western Front Assn.

Heading into Christmas I had three books recommended to me about World War One. On Christmas day I began reading Poilu, and the next day G.J. Meyer's comprehensive A World Undone. Poilu is a memoir and a view of the war through a single lens. Meyer's book is an epic documentation of the war from all the various fronts, including the political leaders, the soldiers, the battles, and the weapons of each nation involved. 

At various interludes throughout the book the author inserts concise overviews of the caliber of generals leading the various armies, including their backgrounds and their readiness for what they were about to experience. This is an excerpt from Meyer's chapter on the British generals.

General John French
August 3, 1914. The Times of London reported that Field Marshal Sir John French had been chosen to lead the British expeditionary force to France and the war. The newspaper was eager to make its readers understand that this was the best of all possible appointments in the best of all possible armies.

As an exercise in wartime propaganda, and helping the public take pride and its Armed Forces in the man chosen to lead them, this report was exemplary. As a reflection of the truth, it did not fall far short of absurd. In the art of generalship, French was rarely better than ordinary.

Meyer's description of the British generals is almost comical. With one exception they were all gentlemen from the gentleman class who knew nothing about war. Here's what he had to say about these leaders of the British Expeditionary Forces (BEF).

This was the system that had produced John French and the other generals at the head of the BEF. They were gentleman almost to a man, the only exception being the aforementioned William Robertson, who by then had risen, almost miraculously, to Major General. As gentlemen they adhere to a code that elevated amateurism in all things to a supreme virtue. Hunting, shooting, polo and weekend gatherings at country estates were proper activities. Too much seriousness--for example, too much reading, even about military history and strategy--definitely was not. The kinds of disputes over theory that wracked the French officer corps were unimaginable north of the Channel, where nobody in uniform cared about theories. The right connections, and a proper degree of aristocratic insouciance, were highways us to advancement. They made the army and especially attractive career for the less intelligent sons of the very best families.  (page 214)

In short, they were willfully ignorant, yet gloried in their stature as "generals."

How many American businesses are run by the same kind of leaders? Just curious.

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Related Links

The Great War: So Much Sorrow and for What? Lessons from the Horror.

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