Jury still out on reputation of WWI generals

Generally competent: Were British commanders as bad as some think?

Thousands gathered yesterday to commemorate those lost in the Battle of Passchendaele. But 100 years on, many still question the decisions made by WWI generals. Should they have done better?

Yesterday Prince Charles, Theresa May, and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge joined thousands of relatives of soldiers at Tyne Cot cemetery in Ypres, Belgium, to pay tribute to those lost in the Battle of Passchendaele.

The battle was fought in relentless rain and thick mud. It lasted three months and resulted in the loss of over half a million lives. It has been considered evidence of the gross incompetence of first world war generals who sent droves of tommies to meaningless deaths. In recent years, however, historians have challenged this view.

The loss of more than 1.1m lives from the British Empire hardly suggests competent command. Yet the Great War was fought on a scale not previously seen. Britain’s last war had pitted it against 88,000 Boer soldiers. In 1914, it faced 3.7m highly trained Germans. The generals were unprepared for this wholly new kind of war.

The commanders of the British Expeditionary Force, Field Marshals Sir John French and Sir Douglas Haig, were both cavalry men, but modern warfare made fighting on horseback obsolete. They came to the war with tactics largely unchanged from Waterloo 100 years earlier, yet the scale of this war was completely different. The western front stretched for over 450 miles; the effective command of troops across it was almost impossible.

They also faced the added complication of technology favouring defensive strategies. It was much easier to defend in trenches with machine guns than it was to attack. The British generals racked up huge numbers of casualties trying to break the stalemate in assaults at the Somme, Aubers Ridge and Passchendaele.

But historians argue that learning from these mistakes led Britain’s generals to develop innovative strategies and weaponry. Much had changed by the Battle of Amiens in 1918. Artillery could now bombard with devastating accuracy. Tanks were able to break through no man’s land. Improved radio communications made large troop movements possible. And thanks to the generals, the British army forged an effective and war-ending fighting machine.

Over the top

Some believe the British generals were woefully unprepared for the war, but by its close they had adopted highly effective techniques which gave them the final victory. The world had never seen a war like this before, and under difficult circumstances the generals adapted their campaign quickly.

Others argue that they did not learn quickly enough. Soldiers were massacred in great numbers while the generals dabbled with strategies far from the horrors of war. It would have been better to wait behind trenches than send men to their deaths. The generals achieved victory, but at an unforgivable and unnecessary cost.

You Decide

  1. “The generals could not have done things differently.” Do you agree?
  2. Is there ever a good reason to go to war?


  1. Class debate: “This House believes that the generals did the best they could.”
  2. Compare tactics at the beginning of the war with tactics at the end. What changed?

Some People Say...

“Whatever you do, you lose a lot of men.”

General Mangin

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is 100 years since the start of what is widely considered the bloodiest battle of the first world war. The second world war is generally regarded as a more clear cut fight between freedom and fascism, whereas the complexities of the first mean more attention is given to its outcome. There is a perception that the generals were unfairly sheltered from the war and out of touch with what was happening in conflict zones, yet many did suffer alongside the men they commanded. Of the 1,252 British generals involved in WWI, 78 died and a further 146 were wounded or taken prisoner.
What do we not know?
Whether or not the British generals could have done better. It is clear that their strategies improved as time went on, but should they have learned from their mistakes faster?

Word Watch

Three months
Officially known as the Third Battle of Ypres, it was fought from July 31st to November 10th, 1917.
A generic name for British soldiers. In WWI, Germans would shout the name “Tommy” over the trenches if they wanted to speak with a British soldier.
Paul Ham and Nick Lloyd have both recently written books about first world war generals. See the reviews in Become An Expert.
The two Boer Wars were fought at the end of the 19th century in modern-day South Africa, against settlers of two independent colonies.
The Duke of Wellington and Flemish allies defeated Napoleon in this battle 99 years prior to the first world war.
At the Somme, over one million soldiers on both sides were killed or injured. The Battle of Aubers Ridge in May 1915 was a complete disaster for the British. Believing German numbers to be depleted in the area, the British launched a frontal attack after only a light bombardment. Around 11,000 British were killed or wounded.
First to develop the tank, the British used them at The Battle of the Somme in 1916.


PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.