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Remembered Today:

"Lions led by Donkeys" - Paul Flynn MP


SteveMarsdin
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Without wishing to infringe the "no modern politics" rule, Paul Flynn's speech, which led to his suspension from the House, compared our involvement in Afghanistan to the "lions led by donkeys" in the First World War. I'm not commenting on the underlying modern issue debated but the fact that, despite all the so-called "revisionist" work, the donkeys idea is still in the popular conscience...

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On the contrary to what Steve suggests, I think Flynn was espousing an eminently 'revisionist'* line if you actually look at what he said in full, rather than just snipping out of context the 'lions led by donkeys' phrase. Here's what he said:

"Isn't this very similar to the end of the First World War, when it was said that politicians lied and soldiers died, and the reality was, as it is now, that our brave soldier lions are being led by Ministerial donkeys.'

In other words, he's explicitly saying that the 'donkeys' leading the soldier 'lions' in the Great War were 'politicians' and 'Ministers', not generals. Which is pretty much where a 'revisionist' historian would lay the ultimate liability, unlike the Liddell Hart camp which exonerated the likes of Lloyd George by blaming the generals for what it cost the country to beat Germany.

* 'Revisionist' is a phrase which better describes Liddell Hart, Alan Clark, John Laffin et al. The consensus of most working historians today has returned the perspective more to that which was held throughout the 1920's by the majority of the generation who fought the war, rather than the specifically anti-general 'lions led by donkeys' war of futility view which came in between the 1930's to '60's, and still casts its shadow amongst the ignorant today. Whatever else he may be, given the explicit target of what he said, Flynn would appear not to be one of the ignorant.

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If it was it certainly wasn't cut from any traditional usage of the LLBD phrase, as all of the usual reference to generals had been deliberately removed and replaced with politicians and Ministers.

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"Isn't this very similar to the end of the First World War, when it was said that politicians lied and soldiers died, and the reality was, as it is now, that our brave soldier lions are being led by Ministerial donkeys.'

I had seen the whole speech but fair point, George, and I note your response in post 5 but I feel the substitution of "generals" by "ministers" was more to do with scoring a modern political point than an assessment of WW1.

I know we are but I'm not certain whether the public are bothered whether it was generals or politicians who were the donkeys, they're just concerned about the lions

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I feel the substitution of "generals" by "ministers" was more to do with scoring a modern political point than an assessment of WW1.

You may well be right, Steve, though it remains a public usage of the LLBD phrase which entirely shifts its usual target from the military leadership to the political leadership. In my book that's no bad thing - whatever war is being referred to!

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Damned if you do and damned if you don't, these are the woes of any politician/leader throughout history. Hindsight and analysis rules always apply if you win loose or draw. Long may the debate continue. Goodnight gentlemen.

Will

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Damned if you do and damned if you don't, these are the woes of any politician/leader throughout history. Hindsight and analysis rules always apply if you win loose or draw. Long may the debate continue. Goodnight gentlemen.

Will

Will, the debate is continuing here:-

Topic

http://1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=184576

Norman

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Contrary to popular belief, I understand that the original words were spoken or written by the Russian military engineer Eduard Totleben in the Crimea: 'The French Army is an army of lions led by donkeys', and the phrase was coined after a failed French attack on the Mamelon on 6 June 1855. See Orlando Figes' Crimea.

Does anyone know of an earlier use?

Gareth

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it remains a public usage of the LLBD phrase which entirely shifts its usual target from the military leadership to the political leadership. In my book that's no bad thing

I agree with you George (as I did about your explanation of "revisionist", which is why I used the phrase "so called revisionists") but I suspect the general public will miss that nuance and just look to a more generic definition of "leaders". Unfortunately LLBD is a catchy phrase for today's soundbite world.

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'The French Army is an army of lions led by donkeys'

Gareth

I agree that the LLBD phrase wasn't just applied to WW1 or the British; a more recent example is Fraenkel's book on Joffre (published November 2004): "Joffre - L'âne qui commandait des lions"

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I agree with you George (as I did about your explanation of "revisionist", which is why I used the phrase "so called revisionists") but I suspect the general public will miss that nuance and just look to a more generic definition of "leaders". Unfortunately LLBD is a catchy phrase for today's soundbite world.

Indeed, but changing decades of public misapprehensions about the Great War, which have been fed and sustained outside of academic circles by an unenquiring news and entertainment media, was always going to be an incremental task of long duration. It's a process in which every little helps. So whether or not Flynn intended as part of his purpose to correct the usual usage of LLBD, the effect was to establish on the public record - in Hansard and in news coverage - that an MP specifically related it as a term of disparagement to Great War politicians rather than military leaders. I'm sure he will be misquoted in future and be misrepresented as having been talking about Haig et al, but the public record now stands to correct that when it happens. A small but not insignificant line in the sand of public references to the hoary old LLBD calumny.

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So I see! Thanks for the heads up on that, Simon, I hadn't bothered to look at the papers today until I saw your post. I see they edited the text slightly and lost my suggestion that Mr Flynn's services to shifting the historical context of LLBD from Great War generals to Great War politicians in public references may have been inadvertant - nonetheless it was a nice opportunity to get the main point made in the press!

George

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it was a nice opportunity to get the main point made in the press!

George

Too true, well done...any chance of seeing a copy of your letter (unless you've written to the Yorkshire Post as well !)

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Thanks, Steve. Here's the text as published by 'The Times', and the original text as submitted. I can't really complain about losing the barb against Lloyd George and Churchill's manipulation of the historiography, as the Times' headline for the letter - 'The Real Donkeys' - makes up for that!

As published:

"Sir,

May I applaud the remarks of Paul Flynn, MP, to the House of Commons on September 18 about the end of the First World War, “when it was said that politicians lied and soldiers died, and the reality was, as it is now, that our brave soldier lions are being led by ministerial donkeys”. This was a refreshing usage of the “lions led by donkeys” phrase which entirely shifts its usual target from the military leadership to the political leadership.

Mr Flynn has rendered a useful historiographical corrective in the public record as we approach the centenaries of the Great War.

George A. Webster"

Original text:

"Sir,

May I applaud Paul Flynn MP’s services to British military history in his remarks to the House of Commons on 18 September. His statement about the end of the First World War, “when it was said that politicians lied and soldiers died, and the reality was, as it is now, that our brave soldier lions are being led by ministerial donkeys” was a refreshing public usage of the ‘lions led by donkeys’ phrase, which entirely shifts its usual target from the military leadership to the political leadership.

Whether or not it was a part of Mr Flynn’s purpose, he has rendered a useful historiographical corrective in the public record as we approach the centenaries of the Great War. David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, those arch political distorters of the history of the Great War on the Western Front in the British public, if not the academic consciousness, would have hated it!"

I see they managed to slightly misspell my name, too......;-)

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Well done George.

Steven Broomfield (Tottygraph correspondent extraordinaire)

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Thanks, Steve. Here's the text as published by 'The Times', - 'The Real Donkeys'

Succinctly put George and, as you say, the headline was worth the editing. It will be interesting to see if you draw any response, particularly from Paul Flynn !

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I am momentarily expecting a missive from Paul Flynn saying "that's not what I really meant - I hate Butcher 'Aig!" Or words to that effect.......

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Nice one, George, a letter thus published is no mean feat. I would hazard a guess that Mr Flynn's motive for his remarks had nothing to do with correcting the historiography of the Great War but more about modern political point scoring and mischief making.

And, I would add, that although David Lloyd George's post-war writings and goings-on (and to a much lesser extent Churchill's) leaves a huge stain on the "Welsh Wizard's" character, let's not forget that he, David Lloyd George, was actually the man who led this country to victory. I sometimes feel that this simple fact is lost in the academic rush towards a "Revisionist Damascus".

I know there are many who will cry "foul", and bombard me with reasons why we won in spite of Lloyd George's leadership, but I would simply answer that there are many in the past (and still plenty in the present) who say exactly the same about Haig, and would argue that many of the reasons given for the resurrection of Haig's reputation also apply to Lloyd George. It seems to me that both sides of the "Lions led by Donkeys" debate need a bogeyman upon whom to vent their anger, and, thus, both weaken their arguments - a bit like communism and fascism; the end result of both totalitarian doctrines becomes virtually indistinguishable.

Haig led the BEF to victory on the western front and should be applauded for it. David Lloyd George led the country to victory on all fronts and should be applauded for it.

Cheers-salesie.

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David Lloyd George led the country to victory on all fronts and should be applauded for it.

Cheers-salesie.

Adolf Hitler agreed with you. He credited DLG with being the man who won the war. I'm sure that there was a visit by the Welsh Wizard to Hitler's mountain retreat in the later 1930s. There was much expression of mutual admiration. The gesticular technique used by the Welshman in his oratory was copied by Hitler : the similarities are very apparent on film.

Phil (PJA)

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