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Remembered Today:

The Generals...and their own tragedies


Petroc
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Reading Sebag-Montefiore's book on the1916 Somme battle at the moment, and amongst a number of major issues I would raise with the author is one that (permit me to paraphrase) 'if British and Dominion Generals had access to information pertaining to the awfulness and tragic nature of their command decisions and the consequences of these decisions on individual families then they may have acted differently'. Notwithstanding the strategic impossibility and impracticality of this, it reminded me of at least one Great War General who continued despite familial loss; Allenby, whose only son was killed serving with the Royal Artillery in 1917. I'm sure there were others?

 

Edited by Petroc
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There were several others, yes. Walter Congreve lost his son William ('Billy') Congreve KIA in the Battle of the Somme. Hubert Gough lost his brother, John Gough, just before the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in 1915. Some generals were also deeply affected by the loss of close friends, such as General Charteris for example when his best friend was killed in July 1917.

Robert

Edited by Robert Dunlop
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The Great War cut a terrible swathe through the leading families of the British nation.   Since the rank of General tended to imply a socially exalted status in many cases - although not all - it follows that there must have been a lot of senior British officers who experienced personal grief as their friends and close family members were killed.

 

Phil

Edited by phil andrade
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I think Petroc, Robert and Phil have ably pointed out it was a sweeping generalisation by the original author that is ill thought out.  Elsewhere on this forum someone has posted the number of British & Dominion Brigadiers-General and above killed during the fighting (85 or so?) and I'm sure similar ratios apply for other combatant nations.  Even the Australian commander Monash, who never visited the front line itself, was forced to leave one of his HQ due to enemy aircraft flying over to bomb his location.

While I appreciate the irony that I myself am drifiting into generalisations, to imply Great War generals sat back in marble chateaus and over champagne wondered why the men were making such slow progress is not in accordance with the facts.  Now if the author had cited Solzhentisyn's description of Tannenberg or some of the Tsarist Eastern Front battles, I would tend to agree!

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WSL 

One small point:

Monash as a brigade commander at Anzac in 1915 lived under Ottoman fire from April to December, as did all his fellow commanders including Birdwood.

There were no chateaus on Gallipoli 

Regards

Michael

 

 

 

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Undoubtedly this unfair depiction of the Generals has been properly repudiated by this band of brothers on GWF !

 

It won’t go away, though.

 

I suppose it’s a concomitant of mass citizen armies fighting in high intensity warfare.

 

Who could forget Siegfried Sassoon’s scathing vignette

 

 

” He’s a cheery old card,

  Said Harry to Jack,

As they slogged up to Arras

with rifle and pack.

 

But he did for them both

With his plan of attack”  

?

 

Forgive inaccuracies : that’s cited from memory.

 

Sassoon himself was from a socially exalted status, and would have been all too aware of the disproportionate slaughter of his social cohort.

 

And then we have Winston Churchill - from the top tier of society - who compared Haig with a surgeon who plied his craft in a manner that exemplified a degree of detachment from the ordeal of the patient.

 

I read Sebag - Montefiore's book on the Somme, and it did make a big impact on me, especially when he cited the Kiwi Kippenberger’s story about the battle of Flers and the slaughter of the German wounded.  It’s a harrowing depiction of the battle and it worked to a degree.  There is, I think, a whiff of hyperbole in the book, and the passage that Petroc cites exemplifies it.

 

Phil 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by phil andrade
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1 hour ago, michaeldr said:

WSL 

One small point:

Monash as a brigade commander at Anzac in 1915 lived under Ottoman fire from April to December, as did all his fellow commanders including Birdwood.

There were no chateaus on Gallipoli 

Regards

Michael

 

 

 

 

Nautical equivalents of the chateau in the HQ on board a battleship ?

Hamilton was a brave and sensitive man.

 

Phil

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3 minutes ago, phil andrade said:

Hamilton was a brave and sensitive man.

True.

He was also the CiC of the MEF

There were plenty of red-tabs from Lieutenant General down, on the ground, on the peninsula and under enemy fire 24/7

But then that was Gallipoli and not the Somme

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Nevertheless, there must be an element of truth in Sebag-Montefiore's statement

eg: as recognised by Allenby.

Amongst his earliest actions on taking command of the EEF was to move their GHQ a couple of hundred miles or more, from Cairo, up to nearer the front line at Gaza.

He was reported to have remarked (I paraphrase here) “The Staff are like partridges; all the better for being shot over!”

Edited by michaeldr
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Haig himself, in the fierce Ypres battles in late 1914, wrote that too many French generals were unaware of conditions at the front.

Let me see if I can find the source.

 

Phil

 

 

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Here it is.

 

Haig’s Private Papers, entry for November 7, 1914 :

 

” Few French Generals or Staff Officers ever seem to go forward to visit their troops in advanced positions. They rely too much on telegrams and written reports from regiments.”

 

Phil

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5 hours ago, michaeldr said:

He was reported to have remarked (I paraphrase here) “The Staff are like partridges; all the better for being shot over!”

the quote appears in Hell in the Holy Land: World War I in the Middle East by David R. Woodward

“... Allenby established his headquarters near Khan Yunis in Palestine. As he told a medical officer, “You know, General Headquarters' roots in Cairo and Ismailia are like alfalfa grass. They are getting too deep into the ground and want pulling up. Moreover, Staff Officers are like partridges: they are better for being shot over.” The bars and dining rooms in Shepheard's and other first class Cairo hotels soon reflected the GHQ's new location. “I have never seen such an array of brass gathered together as I found in the bars and dining-rooms on the first occasion,” approvingly observed Geoffrey Inchbald, a junior officer with the Imperial Camel Corps, “nor so few as on my second visit.”

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I haven’t read book , although, from Petrocs comment it seems almost as if Hugh Sebag-Montifiore is advocating something approaching what we would call ‘restorative justice’, where an individual must account to the victim for his or her actions. Whilst I might have a tinge of sympathy for the view it does seem odd that the author chooses to single out generals and to ignore other groups who were equally culpable of pursuing war in the face of mounting casualties. Perhaps the politicians whose failed policies led to the conflict should have forced to witness the plight of bereaved families across the Empire. The arms manufactures who lined their capacious pockets from the sale of guns could have been forced to view the effects of high explosive on the human body. The great banking families who helped finance the war like the….er…Sebag-Montifiories.I

 

For me, Sebag-Montifiore’s argument, doesn’t because only  apportioning individual responsibility to generals because it is easy or convenient, misses a whole host of others who were equally accountable.

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Speaking from memory, and relying on the impression that the book made on me, I would say that the author was more balanced in his outlook and keen to embrace nuance than the old school of donkeyites exemplified by Clarke and Laffin. A whiff of hyperbole emanated from it, as I suggested earlier : but it certainly shouldn’t be dismissed as caricature. So say I.

 

Phil

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On 17/07/2021 at 05:43, phil andrade said:

Here it is.

 

Haig’s Private Papers, entry for November 7, 1914 :

 

” Few French Generals or Staff Officers ever seem to go forward to visit their troops in advanced positions. They rely too much on telegrams and written reports from regiments.”

 

Phil

I think this strikes me as Haig being his usual self in his diaries (Haig is...weird when it comes to the French, there's a gendered obsession with French cowardice in a lot of his entries). Comparing general to general is difficult because the British Brigadier was really more equivalent to a French colonel in terms of tactical role, but 16 French divisional commanders died from hostile action during the war, and another 128 regimental (3 battalion units equivalent to a BEF 4 battalion brigade) do so as well. The most unfortunate unit being the 77e infantry division who lost 2 commanders in 5 days fighting in Artois in the early summer of 1915. One factor at play may be that the French brigade level of command placed divisional commanders at a bit of a higher level of responsibility than BEF divisional commanders, given that they had two steps in between them and the tactical units of the battalions vs. 1 in a BEF division.

In terms of familial losses, in the mass conscription armies of the continent many of the men leading the war would have had children in the ranks. This wasn't without impact, either. Compare how Foch was able to remain psychologically strong during the intensive fighting around Ypres following the death of both his only son and one of his two son in laws in 1914, while Ludendorff took a heavy hit in Spring of 1918 when his oldest stepson died (another had already died during the war, out of his three stepsons).

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Although this thread is about generals’ tragedies, it is interesting to compare tragedy at the other end of the social scale. Whilst the personal and emotional losses may be comparable, the family of the private soldier may also have had severe financial burdens inflicted.How does one compare the loss of a son to a general to the loss of a husband to a mother of of a young working class family?

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On 17/07/2021 at 15:39, WhiteStarLine said:

Even the Australian commander Monash, who never visited the front line itself, was forced to leave one of his HQ due to enemy aircraft flying over to bomb his location.

 

Are you referring to the front lines on the Western Front or at Gallipoli?  He was certainly in the front lines at Gallipoli, in charge of the Bde that included Jacka of all people.

You probably need to read "Monash The Outsider Who Won A War".

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6 hours ago, PhilB said:

Although this thread is about generals’ tragedies, it is interesting to compare tragedy at the other end of the social scale. Whilst the personal and emotional losses may be comparable, the family of the private soldier may also have had severe financial burdens inflicted.How does one compare the loss of a son to a general to the loss of a husband to a mother of of a young working class family?

Who could answer that ?

 

From Kipling ‘s Epitaphs 

 

A.” I was a have.”

 

B. “ I was a have not. “

 

Together :  “ What hast thou given which I gave not ? “

 

Phil

 

Edited by phil andrade
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The losses may be similar in human terms but worse if financial hardship is heaped on one but not the other. It was brought home to me when talking to two ladies whose father had been killed on the Somme when they were 2 and 3 years old and they related the struggles of their mother to manage to raise them plus a brother and sister.

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6 minutes ago, PhilB said:

The losses may be similar in human terms but worse if financial hardship is heaped on one but not the other. It was brought home to me when talking to two ladies whose father had been killed on the Somme when they were 2 and 3 years old and they related the struggles of their mother to manage to raise them plus a brother and sister.

An aunt of mine was born in October 1915, and her father was killed on the Somme less than a year later. Her mother was left with several children. How on earth she and others managed I simply cannot imagine. 

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7 hours ago, jay26thBn said:

Are you referring to the front lines on the Western Front

It's a fair question and I should have been more explicit.  The OP clearly mentioned the context of the Battle of the Somme 1916 and as Monash was training the Third Division, I refer to his time in 1917 and 1918 as a Western Front Divisional Commander.  I am a great admirer of his generalship and have read the book you cite and all the unit war diary entries for the period he was my grandfather's divisional commander.

My point was that WW1 generals tended to be very close to the front line, to the point that a significant number were killed.  Even those who stayed further back experienced shelling and bombing specifically targeting their HQ.

 

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On 20/07/2021 at 16:05, PhilB said:

The losses may be similar in human terms but worse if financial hardship is heaped on one but not the other. It was brought home to me when talking to two ladies whose father had been killed on the Somme when they were 2 and 3 years old and they related the struggles of their mother to manage to raise them plus a brother and sister.

Claims were often dealt with very slowly and without interim payments financial hardship was common for widows before a pension was awarded. The regulations included what could, I suppose, can only be described as a morality test of the recipient and any lack of perceived ‘respectability’ could result in forfeiture. This particularly angered many working class women who felt that they were being judged against the social mores of the middle class. 

 

The widows of officers did receive a significantly higher rate of pension and could apply for further grants of money to help support children through a ‘better type of school’ or to ensure that there was no significant drop in household standards after the death of a husband. (Janis Lomis, Soldiering On; War Widows in First World War Britain)

 

As far as upper class women were concerned the historian Jay Winter in ‘Britains Lost Generation of the First World War; a rather unconvincing attempt to show that the privileged classes had suffered disproportionately, notes that women in this class often had significant difficulty in remarrying men from the same social class because of high casualties amongst this particular set.  

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4 minutes ago, ilkley remembers said:

As far as upper class women were concerned the historian Jay Winter in ‘Britains Lost Generation of the First World War; a rather unconvincing attempt to show that the privileged classes had suffered disproportionately, notes that women in this class often had significant difficulty in remarrying men from the same social class because of high casualties amongst this particular set.  

Are there actual figures for losses based on "class"? Maybe only for officers and non-officers, which may be distorted by the influx of rankers into the lower commissioned echelons?

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