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Alan Lines

Lions led by donkeys?

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Alan Lines

One of the dailys this week described a certain group of soldiers from WW1 as "lions led by donkeys".

There has been a concerted effort in recent years by revisionists to change this widely held belief. I sometimes wonder if they have made any difference? From what I have read in the papers this week it doesn't seem so

For the record my current view has been significantly changed since reading much of the revisionist literature and joining the WFA. I do feel I am very much in the minority though.

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barrieduncan

Problem is Alan, its most likely none of the journo's that write these pieces have bothered to read any of the revisionist works that are out there - they pick up on common, (often misguided) sentiments, and go with that. The average joe on the street, (who lets face it, probably doesn't give a monkeys about the Great War, never mind the debates about leadership) will take what the papers say as matter-of-fact and that will be that.

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Guest lavers hill

Hi Allan

With all due respect, it is not too clear what change has occurred in your thinking. Did you agree with the German, Ludendorff, and the Australian, Laffin, that donkeys were in charge?. What has changed your view, the revisionists, the GWF, or personal observations during visits to sacred sites such as Ypres Menin Gate and TocH???????????

Johnnie

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Willywombat

It doesn't help that it was the way it was taught for years in schools, and of course, those bloomin' war poets have got a lot to answer for!

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armourersergeant

My opinion is that bad news is always a better seller than good news!

To change from donkeys to competent commanders is a difficult task to do. The sheer numbers of casualties would give the average casual reader a hard time accepting on the face of it. Given that the only way to see what thye had to over come is to read in some depth and that most can not be bothered it will porbably never change.

Yet again given that there were some Donkeys as well does not help to clear the mist.

regards

Arm

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Willywombat

Tommy always has, and always will, whinge about his senior officers. It happens today! From his worm's-eye view he can rarely see the bigger picture.

Then, only 20-odd years later we were fighting the Germans again. We couldn't be seen to admit that they were any good, now could we? Bad for morale and all that. Being used to the idea of incompetent staff (Charge of the Light Brigade etc.), it seemed the most convenient reason.

Then you've got the arty-farty lefties of the 60s and their "Oh, What a Lovely War". Then Blackadder (more lefties!).

With all that, it's no wonder people's opinions get coloured!

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John_Hartley
Then you've got the arty-farty lefties of the 60s and their "Oh, What a Lovely War".

So, are you saying that those of us of a "certain age" and "certain view", have changed attitudes or have not changed attitudes?

I'm a little unclear from your post and I need to make plans for my declining years. Do I pat myself on my back or work even harder?

John

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PhilB
Yet again given that there were some Donkeys as well does not help to clear the mist.

regards

Arm

How refreshing to see a balanced view - yes, there were some donkeys and yes, there were some competent men. Careful, Arm, this could be the next revision! Phil B

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John_Hartley
From what I have read in the papers this week it doesn't seem so

Alan

I suspect this may be more to do with practicalties than anything else. Your average journalist is a busy person - needing to get their copy on before the deadline. This doesnt sit well with a detailed analysis of a situation. It's far easier to look in the files to see what was written last time, or to use the copy supplied by an outsider.

In terms of the latter, I have personal experience with dealing with my own local newspaper. If I write something in newspaper's usual style and submit it (and it's along the appropriate lines) then there's a good chance of publication more or less as it stands. For example, a good "human interest" Great war oeice is almost a dead cert. for publication in early November.

There is, also, the fact that the print media in the UK, unlike broadcasting, has no obligation to be unbiased and set out both sides of a story. And, in terms of "human interest", a story that stupid upper class generals ordered our poor ordinary lads to death and destruction is simply too good a story to waste. Don't confuse us with the facts - this is news!

John

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6th Shropshires

Its like barrieduncan says the journo's will not have bothered to look into the war like most of us, plus as Arm says bad news is always a better seller than good news. There were incompetent Generals, and these were gotten rid of, there were Generals who made mistakes and most learned from those mistakes: and this applies to Generals of all those Countries who took part in the war. The Yanks Generals should have been very good, they had three years to study the war and not make the mistakes that had been made but they made the same mistakes.

Sorry to say this but only sort sighted people say with a sweeping statment that the British Generals were Donkeys. I look forward to a full study into all Generals to get a balanced picture of them all.

Annette

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Take on me

When I started reading this thread I wanted to comment, but there is no need, most of it has all already been said. Good news bad, bad news good and all that (if you will forgive the grammer). The way it is taught in schools and the fact that it is far easier to write a polemic then a defence. Plus the fact that journalists are more than happy to just look at the last article written upon the subject, simply go on reinforcing the stereotypes.

At the end of the day, lets face it these journalists have (or ought to have) rather more important things to report about then the events of 90 years ago. Most people out there probably do see the Generals of WW1 as donkeys, but they probably don't really care about the subject at all. We are never going to convince everybody to look at the past objectivily, read all the literature and come to a balenced, informed decision. However over time we might be able to convince a few, interested people, to look at all the facts so that understanding of the war is increased.

However this changes when a journalist writes an opinionated essay on the subject in question, that is when we expect them to be well informed. When they are infuriantingly badly informed, like Max Hastings in his Guardian article on the 1st July this year, it can be very annoying.

I have always found it strange how many journalists, politicians and even some historians seem happy to swallow unquestioningly the fiction that the commanding officers in the armies of eight major nations (Britain, France, Italy, Russia, Germany, Austro Hungary, Turkey and the United States) became collectively stupid overnight (1-2 August 1914) and forced their countries into years of aimless, futile trench warfare. Perhaps the concept of 'Lions led by Donkeys' is the result of the very human desire to blame other people for the tremendous casualties, yet by doing this other factors, such as inadequate communications and technological stalemate, are simply ignored due to the need enforce blame.

Just a few (wandering, aimless) thoughts,

Jon :)

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Justin Moretti

I'm coming more and more to agree at least in part with Tim Travers' view. I think that at least from the British perspective, what you had was a late-Victorian army and navy being asked to fight a technological war at least 20 years in advance of all the lessons they'd learned as junior officers (which is I reckon when you pick up all your habits), with a deferential chain of command that had been socialized into them from at least their early childhood.

Travers takes the BEF (especially Our Favourite Field Marshal) to task for choosing the manpower situation over the integrated technological situation (specifically concentrating on air power and tanks), but has the benefit of hindsight, of knowing how they could and should have been managed (and I think the failure of the Germans to make significant use of tanks argues against him). What we have to remember today is that the technology was brand new, and the concepts behind it (which have been thoroughly thrashed out over the intervening ninety years) were as new to people like DH and his generals as guided missiles were to the naval and air staffs of the 1950s and 60s.

In fact, given the miserable showing of guided missiles in manoeuvering air combat in Vietnam (poor reliability, poor agility, limited tactical envelopes for efficient use, even when you leave aside the political restrictions on Beyond Visual Range engagement with Sparrow), GHQ's refusal to rely too much on new technology to Do It All (as opposed to simply crushing wire and blowing up MG nests, assisting rather than supplanting the infantry) doesn't seem so senseless or backward, and it may be that GHQ's refusal to make too many massed integrated tank attacks was more a question of logistics, availability and a realization or the tank's limitations than a desire to embrace backwards or obsolete doctrines (granted, these were not always applied efficiently either, and even the most Haigophilic historian is left with things that are very difficult to explain away if one scratches below the surface).

I'm guessing that, transported into the world of the 50s, the General and Naval Staffs would have retained guns in fighters and warships, and relegated missiles to a supplementary role, although this applies more to the US Navy than to the RN, which seems never to have entirely eschewed the gun in major missile-equipped warships until the early Broadsword-class (Type 22) frigates (and those few Leanders which inherited an Ikara or Seawolf system in place of the twin 4.5").

I don't think anyone here would doubt that the culture of command and mutual favours (e.g. the one owed to Haig by Rawlinson, for not being dismissed after scapegoating his Divisional commander) was not a healthy one to take into a technological war where mistakes meant disaster, honest feedback was essential to avoiding them, and initiative could make the difference between grasped and missed opportunities.

In the end, you can't exculpate them (any of them, on all sides). You can't excuse the gigantic stuffups they made, and you can't ignore the fact that a goodly proportion of the slaughter was indeed futile. But for the sake of every army that ever goes into action hereafter, you have to understand the context in which the mistakes were made. Because most of those men were not staggeringly brilliant once-in-a-lifetime geniuses (genii?), and most of them could not rise above the social, psychological and technological/intellectual milieu in which they had been raised, just as I am sure most of us could not today. And if there is to be an excuse, an out, or an absolution for any of them, that in my mind is the only one there is.

On a more humorous note: given that some of the casualty evacuation at Gallipoli was performed on the backs of those long-eared equines we all know and love, surely that makes them "Donkeys Led By Lions"! :-)

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AndyHollinger
On a more humorous note: given that some of the casualty evacuation at Gallipoli was performed on the backs of those long-eared equines we all know and love, surely that makes them "Donkeys Led By Lions"! :-)

If nothing else, we should give credit for saying something new.

I was drawn to this post as if there was magic on the board ... The press will never get it right during our lifetime on anything ... remember they went to school, learned history 101 maybe even became a "history nut" and watch the History Channel ... unless you're really paying attention to the literature and spending time listening in discussions, rather than arguing polemics ... historical interpretation doesn't change ... not for you, at least. And when that "you" is a journalist - it becomes that way for everyone ...

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PhilB
Because most of those men were not staggeringly brilliant once-in-a-lifetime geniuses (genii?), and most of them could not rise above the social, psychological and technological/intellectual milieu in which they had been raised, just as I am sure most of us could not today. And if there is to be an excuse, an out, or an absolution for any of them, that in my mind is the only one there is.

"! :-)

As I`ve implied above, I`m on the "Lions sometimes led by donkeys" wing. It`s not reasonable to expect staggering brilliance in all the commanders, but I do think they have to be judged by a different yardstick to ordinary mortals. They have been selected as the best men for the job and may have connived in that process, but, if they accept a post of great responsibility they presumably considered themself fit for purpose and to have outstanding qualities. So we should judge them against the standards we can reasonably expect in a commander. And those surely include some degree of tactical and strategic brilliance? Phil B

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Take on me

QUOTE (Phil_B @ Aug 21 2006, 01:01 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
So we should judge them against the standards we can reasonably expect in a commander. And those surely include some degree of tactical and strategic brilliance? Phil B

But where was there going to be tactical and strategic brilliance on the Western Front, in which vast armies were deadlocked through technological stalemate? Furthermore I really cannot see many generals out there who have not made mistakes or caused unneccessary casualties. My view is that within the context of the First world War the Generals did a fairly good job in the end, after all it could have been worse, they could have lost!

Jon

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PhilB

That raises an interesting question - is there no place for tactical or strategic brilliance in trench warfare? Surely there must be? Phil B

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AndyMacdonald
Problem is Alan, its most likely none of the journo's that write these pieces have bothered to read any of the revisionist works that are out there - they pick up on common, (often misguided) sentiments, and go with that. The average joe on the street, (who lets face it, probably doesn't give a monkeys about the Great War, never mind the debates about leadership) will take what the papers say as matter-of-fact and that will be that.

I'm a journo and have written extensively on WW1. I can say that I've read most of the revisionist accounts doing the rounds, and the others too! My interest came from interviewing veterans.

As for the Lions and Donkeys argument: I always believed donkeys to be intelligent beasts and therefore thoroughly unsuited to any comparison with the intellectual capacity - or lack thereof - of Haig et al.

I would venture my thoughts on the apparently pending war pardons for soldiers executed for desertion in WW1, but understand this is verbotten on Great War Forum.

FYI, I have not taken your comments personally, and merely wish to inform that not all of us take the red-top rag approach! You may well find that wartime hack Philip Gibbs and his cronies pioneered this form of pop journalism.

Andy M

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gporta

There's one recurring argument that leaves this foreigner a bit puzzled. Namely the blame put on the "War Poets" or "Blackadder Goes Forth" as being untrue to historical facts. Sure they are, but then we are not talking about documentaries. I have read some British War poetry and often find it very moving, yet I am well aware that a poem is a literary and subjective piece: it represents the views and feelings of the author and it has a strong component of artistic license. "Blackadder" also takes licences with WW1, but then it's comedy: would you take "Carry on Cleo" as a faithful description of the going-ons of Julius Caesar, Cleopatra and Marc Anthony?

When I want to be entertained, I see "Blackadder", but when I want to know about history, I go to history books (which, BTW, may offer starkly different views depending on the authors) or try to view a good documentary...

Being mad about the view of WW1 given by "Blackadder Goes Forth" feels to me like blaming the Asterix series for giving a wrong view of Rome and the Gaul 50 years B.C.: popular perceptions about a theme are always very broad generalizations (and therefore innacurate). I must admit I get annoyed when people unfamiliar with classical music describes opera as "fat ladies screaming onstage", but c'est la vie :P

As a local cartoonitst put it: You don't go and watch "Them" in order to learn entomology... Twenty-feet high ants belong to Science-Fiction pulps. If you want to learn about the life of ants, watch "National Geographic"

Gloria

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Take on me
There's one recurring argument that leaves this foreigner a bit puzzled. Namely the blame put on the "War Poets" or "Blackadder Goes Forth" as being untrue to historical facts.

The gripe that many of us have is that Blackadder goes Forth seems to be representative of many people's views towards the First World War. Extracts from the series are even quoted in Key Stage 3 History books, a friend of mine was shown an episode and told that it was representative of the war. Furthermore I have frequently heard people quote Blackadder when discussing the war.

The fact of the matter is that Balckadder would not be very funny if it did not appeal to a general understanding of the First World War and this is done by its many references to 'Lions led by Donkeys.' It is true that you should not learn your history from comedy, but too many people do. When we complain it is not an attack on what was a very good comedy series but the way that people continue to trott out its lines about ''General Haig moving his drinks cabinet six inches towards Berlin'' and somehow believing that is exactly what happened.

Now on to the War Poets, you are right that the poems are often wonderfully moving peices of work. However many see the war poets as representative of the British Army that fought during the 1914-18 war, seeing the average Tommy as one of a generation of doomed, young public school idealists who had their hopes cruelly shattered and those few who did not die returned utterly disillusioned with their experiences. However your average Tommy, needless to say, did not fulfill all of those criteria. Indeed I am sure that a fair few were proud of their service and modern research by historians has done nothing to disprove this view.

For decades the War poets have been viewed as representative and we see the war through their eyes, a waste of lives in which foolish commanders sacrificed thier mens lives for no gains whatsoever. Such views become ingrained and can be difficult to shift, the fact that the poems are much qouted at every annivesary can help to obscure what actually happened during the battles and I think that it is the belief that the war poets views were universal which irritates some of us.

Just a few thoughts,

Jon :)

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Willywombat

JGM - spot on! My views exactly.

Unfortunately nothing will change the established view once it becomes entrenched not least because a simplistic view is all most people can be bothered with.

Lets look at some examples:

American Civil War - The South were baddies and wanted slavery, the North were the goodies and didn't and so they won.

English Civil War - The Cavaliers were all upper class who wore hats with big feathers, rode horses and liked the king. The roundheads were working-class fellows led by oliver Cromwell, who wore pots on their heads and carried pikes and invented parliament.

World War 2 - Hitler wanted to take over the world because he was mad and we stopped him (with a bit of help from the Americans who were late). And the Japanese and Russians were in there somewhere as well.

Wars of the Roses - A bunch of Yorkshiremen didn't get on with their neighbours from Lancashire and they fought each other but not really sure who won. Oh, and they wore different coloured roses.

World War One - After some Austrian prince got shot in Sarajevo the Germans tried to conquor poor little Belgium and we stopped them although everyone there died in their millions because they were sent over the top by generals sitting in a chateau who didn't care.

Now, please note, I'm NOT accusing anyone here of having such a simplistic view. just illustrating the woeful inadequacy of many people's knowledge of the examples given. That, I'm afraid, is what we're up against!

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PhilB

[quote name='Willywombat'

Unfortunately nothing will change the established view once it becomes entrenched not least because a simplistic view is all most people can be bothered with.

!

One has to bear in mind, of course, that, just because a view is established and entrenched, it`s not necessarily false. Unless you`re a historian, in which case it must be ripe for revision! Phil B

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Roxy

In the RAF, nigh on every official presentation has a bit of 'Blackadder Goes Forth'; not because it gives an accurate representation of Flight Safety in the early days of flight or the development of Airpower Strategy and Doctrine, but because its funny.

Some people think the 'Eastenders' and 'Coronation Street' are real. We can't win. :rolleyes:

Roxy.

Emerdale is, of course, a documentary. :ph34r:

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6th Shropshires

I am not a historian, or then again I guess I am because I research the great war & the Shropshires involvment in that war. I do not go looking for revision, I just read what I read, and see it as it is, sorry about the grammer but I hated school. Casualties were high for all the countries involved, when you get two big and powerful countries like Germany and French in an industrial age then the numbers killed is going to be high, but when you look at in by percentages Britain did not suffer as bad as the French and the German.

Another factor to be considered is that the Germans had to be rated the best Army in the world at the start of the war, althou I think the pre-war British soldier was the best soldier in the world, they were just ill-equiped. It was not until late 1916, that the British Army matched the German Army. When you are fighting a Country that is more powerful in armerments then you are going to lose high amounts of men.

Also how much did the British have to play to the French high commands tune, I have read many times of the British high commands reluctance to fight in some of the battles they had to fight, also there were times when they wanted to end a battles when it was not going well but were asked by French high command to carry on.

Annette

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gporta

Jon,

Thanks for your views.

My idea is that if students are shown "Blackadder", maybe is to "hook" them into history with something that might entice their interest in the subject, not to say "this was like that" (this is, for instance, the reason behind Asterix being published in Latin) ... However, if, as you say, the student comes out with the idea that "this was what happenned", well, I'm afraid that someone in the way has not done the job properly, but this is not strictly a fault of the "Blackadder" series.

I don't think the war poets wrote their poems to say "This is the Official History", but rather "this is how I see/feel it". Indeed, the evocative power of literature can be very strong, but again "El Cantar del Mio Cid" or "La Chanson de Roland" or "War and Peace"are not journalistic reports, but literary works inpired upon some historical deeds. If the war poems are taken again, as historical evidence, well, again, someone there is not doing his work properly... but you can't blame the war poets for having their own opinions.

My opinion is that the popular perception of the First World War owes not so much to the success of the work of the war poets or "Blackadder". As has been stated previously, it is a matter of the worm-view against the bird view perspective. The war was of such scale, that many families of the combatant countries either lost a relative, or had him back wounded in body and/or soul. This creates strong reverberations: the fading sepia picture of a Great-Grandfather who died in the war (worm-view) has an emotional impact that no accurate historical account (bird-view) can match..

Personally, I have read some books, many, as it happens, from the "revisionist" school, and I try to take take all views in consideration.

Gloria

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gporta
Some people think the 'Eastenders' and 'Coronation Street' are real. We can't win. :rolleyes:

Now you won't tell me that Dr. Who doesn't exist! :o I saw his blue phone booth near Colindale, so he must be real.

Gloria

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