The attitudes of British soldiers to their commanders during the First World War
The relationship between soldiers and their commanders has often been called into question since World War I, leading to ultimate victory for Britain, but also extremely heavy losses on both sides. This has raised debate as to whether or not commanders such as General Douglas Haig were really in touch with the men under their command. In the following lines I shall examine whether attitudes between the ordinary front line soldiers and their commanders were really as strained as is often portrayed or if the relationship was one of mutual respect for men doing their duty, the defence of their country and her allies.
By 1916 the initial ecstasy after the outbreak of the war was all but obliterated, with the realisation that the war would not be as short as first believed. Scepticism within the British public, who had been told that the war would be won by Christmas 1914, was beginning to become apparent and publications such as Punch magazine were reflecting this. Source A (from Punch magazine) suggests cowardice on the part of the generals, claiming that they did not share the suffering of those under their command and kept their distance from the battlefield.
Haig, for example, only visited the front line twice in the entire war. However, when considering the usefulness of this source, we must remember that the magazine claims to ‘hang the devil of current affairs’, often mocking those in command in order to provoke public debate among its readership, the middle and upper classes, equivalent to today’s media but often presenting an unbalanced argument through its controversial stance. Additionally, the creators of the cartoon are unlikely to have had first hand experience of the fighting, meaning that their view is not necessarily that of those that it depicts.
On the other hand, source M portrays a ‘front-line officer’ who appears genuinely upset at the death of a ‘fine unselfish comrade’ under his command. When a soldier was killed in action, it was the duty of their commanding officer to inform the relatives of their death and, whilst this letter bears similarities to other such letters, there are also personal details such as the fact that ‘his death was caused by a rifle grenade’, probably known only by those around him.
As such, it is more useful than source A for answering the above question due to its portrayal of an individual occurrence from the point of view of an officer and because it was written on the battlefield. Within the armed forces, the official relationship between soldiers and officers was one of deference. This was enforced through the meticulous descriptions of the manner in which a soldier was to behave when in the presence of those of higher rank and therefore did not allow for flexibility, requiring that ‘when a soldier passes an officer he will salute on the third pace before reaching him’.
This was in an attempt to ensure obedience on the part of the lower ranking soldiers that comprised the majority of the army. By the Battle of the Somme, disillusionment had begun to set in at the realisation of the horrors and reality of trench warfare and the joy on the part of the soldiers of being at war had disappeared. In 1914 one front line officer and professional poet stated, “I adore war. It’s like a big picnic without the objectlessness of a picnic.
I’ve never been so well or happy. ” Although he was killed in action in April 1915, it is unlikely that he would have held the same belief by August 1916. Siegfried Sassoon shares this sense of abandonment and lack of care on the part of the commanding officers. In source B, the sacrifices of ‘Harry’ and ‘Jack’, two ordinary British soldiers are blamed on an ‘incompetent swine’, a British general whose bad planning has sealed the fate of the two soldiers ‘by his plan of attack’.
Sassoon was a junior officer and, as such, is likely to have had a great deal of experience fighting on the front line alongside men such as himself, the ordinary soldier with little or no rank. During the war he often wrote poems such as this in order to record his own emotions and events, although it is also probable that it was intended for publication. As such, it is very useful for addressing the issue of relationships between soldiers and the generals and coincides with the many opinions expressed by the British soldiers at the time.
In conclusion, although source M and B are both useful for an historian studying the attitudes of British soldiers to their commanders in World War I, it would also be helpful to use accounts written by the generals during the war, in order to ascertain their opinions of the soldiers under their command, in conjunction with the aforementioned sources. Additionally, it would not be possible to assess fully the relationship without consultation of other sources of information such as letters from soldiers to their loved ones and personal accounts written either during or after the war.
It is perhaps fitting that this is how their leaders should be judged, not by public opinion but by testimonies of ordinary soldiers, many of whom would never return from the battlefields of the western front. John Keegan, a modern military historian, suggests that Haig was ‘an efficient and highly skilled soldier who did much to lead Britain to victory in the First World War’. Is there sufficient evidence in sources C to L to support this interpretation?
Use the sources and your knowledge to explain your answer. The Battle of the Somme has always been seen by many as ‘the worst ever period in the history of the British Army’, blaming the generals and in particular General Douglas Haig for the loss of 20,000 lives on the first day of the Somme alone and 40,000 wounded. He has often been criticised as a ‘blunderer’, treating the men like pawns but the fact that Britain eventually emerged victorious may also suggest otherwise and it is my intention to assess this.
When it was realised that the war was not going to be short-lived as first thought, the British commanders turned their attention to a war of attrition designed to wear away at the German forces and to ‘kill as many German forces as possible’. The German attack at Verdun also put pressure on Haig to turn his attention away from an attack in Flanders to an offensive on the Somme in summer 1916, in order to relieve the French.
The diplomatic importance of the offensive on what is seemingly a strategically unimportant stretch of land is perhaps best portrayed in Source H, Haig’s official biography ‘To have refused to fight then and there would have meant the abandonment of Verdun to its fate and the breakdown of co-operation with the French’. Haig did however realise in the preparation for the assault, that ‘the nation must be prepared to see heavy casualty lists’ (source H), perhaps in an attempt to clear his name from the public criticism that was sure to come if their loved ones did not return alive from the battlefields.
Both prior to and during the battle, Haig’s ‘great self-confidence’ is evident, partially influenced by his belief that ‘he had been chosen by God to serve his country’. He expected an easy breakthrough as far as the German held town of Bapaume, seven miles from where the attack was to begin. On the other hand, Rawlinson, the General who would command the attacking troops, foresaw a ‘bite into the German trench system, to be followed by further bites to gain more territory’. Rawlinson was to prove the more realistic. Haig had planned for a week-long artillery barrage prior to 0-hour, the name given to the time that the attack was to begin.
However, the German defences were far stronger than British intelligence had estimated, with the front line soldiers garrisoned in 30 foot deep concrete bunkers, impervious to any shell that was in operation. The plans were further affected by the fact that 30% of the shells launched did not detonate, also due to the lack of experience among those manufacturing the weaponry, who could not be adequately trained with the limited resources available. Despite this, Haig was still optimistic on 30th June 1916, the day before the attack was to begin.
He states that ‘the barbed wire has never been so well cut nor the artillery preparation so thorough’, despite reports on 26th and 27th June that ‘the dugouts are still good’ and ‘the barbed wire is still in place … with no effect caused by British shells’. Nevertheless, the Battle of the Somme began on 1st July 1916 and was to require a ‘creeping barrage tactic’, involving artillery fire barely 50 yards in front of the advancing British infantry and necessitating skilled gunners combined with regular communication between infantry battalions and artillery batteries.
Unfortunately both of these were lacking. Earlier action on the Western Front had resulted in the deaths of the majority of the regular army and those now operating the guns were inexperienced and unable to call upon and adjust their fire, meaning they were forced to fire in accordance with a pre-determined speed at which the infantry were to advance – roughly fifty yards per minute. The future invention of tactical radio was to be instrumental in implementing high accuracy heavy gun fire but this was not to come into operation until the Second World War.
Consequently, I do not believe that Haig can be cited as the cause of the failure of this phase of the assault but his continued over optimism, even on 1st July 1916 when he claims that ‘all went like clockwork… and already the Germans are surrendering freely’, is also evident in a German tribute to him, where it is claimed that ‘his energy and eagerness to attack have not proved equal to the German art of defence’.
In the ‘War memoirs of David Lloyd George’, the British Prime Minister claims that ‘Haig promised not to press the attack if it became clear that he could not attain his objectives by continuing the offensive. ‘ Whilst this cannot necessarily be taken at face value as they were written with the possibility of being published, I do not believe that it would be strategically or indeed morally correct to continue an assault if it were clear that sufficient progress could not be made without very heavy losses.
In spite of the initial military failure of the attack at the Somme, it should also be said that the British Army had evolved into a more mobile and formidable force. By 1918, they had adopted the German tactics of ‘fire and manoeuvre’, involving assault teams with grenades, flamethrowers and machine guns, often operating at night and creating passages through which a larger force could travel as was seen in World War II. Whilst I do not believe that he was ‘one of the great men of the twentieth century’, Haig was not the uncaring incompetent as is commonly stated.
He had authorised the first ever night attack on 14th July 1916, despite having reservations and the success of this, damaging the enemy when the least expected it, paved the way for further tactical improvement and the victories on the European battlefields that lead to the end of the war in 1918. The lack of prior experience of total warfare, combining equipment and the bravery of men, meant that heavy losses, particularly in the early stages of the war, were inevitable and it is perhaps the advance in technology, spearheaded by the men under Haig’s command, that is their legacy.