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Remembered Today:

Absence of Leadership


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Good day all

Question. It is a staple of thought regarding the Great War that many of the senior officers, safely back in the warmth and comfort of the Div, Corp and Army HQs had little if any understanding of what they were sending their men into. No concept of the mud, the shelling, the appalling conditions, the wire, etc. Of what machine gun fire actually meant. That battles were fought from maps, with intervals for proper meals and rest. There is the story of one of these officers, after the Somme I think (but am not at all sure), on actually seeing the battle field, bursting into tears and asking, 'Did we really send men to fight in this?".

I am not speaking here of the individual, calculating staff rat, who thinks only of his own hide and career. That some few were of that ilk, I have no doubt at all. They exist today. My question is, given the so often repeated frontal attacks with massed infantry through shell fire against uncut wire and machine guns, is there a consensus that taken as a whole, the collective senior military leadership was guilty of gross professional incompetence? Or were they merely pre 'industrial war' soldiers caught up in an industrial war and knowing not what else to do?

Colin

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Blimey where to start.

The quote you mention is supposed to be from 3rd Ypres and aledgedly was Kiggel, Haigs cheif staff officer. However I believe it was Davidson (another GHQ staff officer) who actually did the 'crying'. Though he said, if i recall correclty, that it was to hide his face to the facts not to cry.

As for the rest there is ample material on this froum and comes along often for discussion. A tour of the search will possibly help with this.

In my opinion there were many instances, especilally for Division and below commanders to go foward and did so. For Corps and above whilst in those positions, it is really less pratical for them to do so. Whilst it is their job to be aware of the conditions it is not to be in the line of fire. In fact an order from Robertson, at the time Sir John French's COS, after the battle of Loos, issued an order at French's wish 'forbidding' senior officers to go to far foward. This was due to the casualties suffered.

You may well be aware of the term 'learning curve' it is perhaps better described as 'a walk up and down dale'. This the learning process that many commanders went through during a period that saw the greatest change any military war has under gone and for the British commanders the greatest sized army ever to be sent over seas.

Not a complete answer I am afriad but work calls.

regards

Arm

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This subject has been debated repeatedly on this Forum and elsewhere. Just to be clear about this, are we going to discuss the performance of generals from all the belligerents? The French who had suffered casuaties of 1.9 million by December 1915, with one million killed or missing? the Russians? the Italians? The Germans who gave out orders such as, 'I forbid the voluntary relinquishment of positions...The enemy must be made to pick his way forward over corpses.' (von Below Second Army commander 3 Jul 1916)?

If we are going to restrict this to British generals, are we going to include Brigadier Generals, a rank which disappeared before the Second World War? If we do then the topic needs to be underpinned by the thought that between them this group of men contained ten holders of the VC and 126 were DSOs, twenty of them with a bar, so these men, whatever else they were, were fighting soldiers and personally courageous. Hunter Weston, who over time has become one of the top hate figures as a corps commander, was almost recklessly brave as the commander of 11 Brigade in the 1914 battles - especially at Le Cateau.

The generals as a group ran serious risks on the Western front. 58 were killed or died of wounds and somewhere around three hundred were wounded. As a comparison , during the Second World War, one major general was killed in North West europe and two others elsewhere. Of the first seven divisional commanders to deploy on the western front, Hamilton was killed and Lomax mortally wounded in Oct 14 and Capper was mortally wounded at Loos the following year. Talking of Loos there were nine divisions involved altogether, depending on how the sums are done. Three of the commanders were killed. As well as Capper, Thesiger and Wing were also killed. On the Somme, Ingorville Williams (Inky Bill) was killed during a forward recce. Broadwood died in Flanders and Feetham during the German 1918 Spring Offensive. Louis Lipsett, who had commanded the 3rd Canadian Div at the capture of Vimy Ridge was killed by machine gun fire whilst visiting the front line in Oct 1918 and the Canadians and Australians each lost one major general each.

Research has also been done about how these senior officers were killed. Twenty two were shot by small arms - rifles or machine guns and thirty four by shell or mortar fire. If it is borne in mind that across the board about 70% of all casualties were caused by indirect fire, it can be seen that a disproportionate number of generals were killed at or very close to the front line.

Jack

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Jack

Quite right. So the question remains, as before, not one of bravery but of professional ability. Did they check the ground, evaluate conditions, consider the obstacles only from a distant HQ, or did they not? In either case, how could they, as professional soldiers, repeatedly and in the face of bitter experience, arrive at the same tired conclusion of massed infantry against defensive positions of proven invulnerability?

As to how far to extend the question, I've no idea. My query was prompted by what has been said, written and become 'common knowledge' regarding Allied leaders on the Western Front. Perhaps it's relevant elsewhere, perhaps not.

Colin

Arm

Thank you for the correction on the quote. And 'Blimey, where to start?' about sums it up. The topic is huge, multi-faceted, complex and possibly unanswerable. It is also, however, at the core of what we collectively 'remember' about the Great War. It is the 'known fact' if you will, that tens of thousands of citizens were sent to their deaths by bungling senior officers who seemed not only incompetent but unable to learn. Whether one agrees with this 'known fact' or not, the wide spread belief that it is true it colors our political, military and social life to this day.

Hence my question.

Colin

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Your question implies several notions. That the Command employed the same tactics and strategies all through the war. This is palpably untrue. From Neuve Chapelle through the Somme and IIIrd Ypres ending in The 100 Days, there was a steady progression. The question is then, " was there any alternative, could it have been better". If the answer is ' yes', then would the staff be expected to have known this? We have already answered this. Every failure or partial success led to changes. The Command never ceased to strive for improvement. As to leading from behind, one has only to have a skim through ' Bloody Red Tabs ' to dispel that notion.

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Your question implies several notions. That the Command employed the same tactics and strategies all through the war. This is palpably untrue. From Neuve Chapelle through the Somme and IIIrd Ypres ending in The 100 Days, there was a steady progression. The question is then, " was there any alternative, could it have been better". If the answer is ' yes', then would the staff be expected to have known this? We have already answered this. Every failure or partial success led to changes. The Command never ceased to strive for improvement. As to leading from behind, one has only to have a skim through ' Bloody Red Tabs ' to dispel that notion.

Sorry, can't say I see it. Changing the length of the period of bombardment and adding yet more waves of infantry hardly constitutes a steady progression in tactics or strategy. On the contrary, it could well be construed as an serious inability to analyze a novel set of conditions with a result that each battle, with frankly minor variations, inevitably followed the pattern of massive and intricate build up, overwhelming bombardment, waves of unbelievably brave infantry and tens of thousands of dead and wounded. All in exchange for several miles of mud, if the attack was a 'success'.

I have not yet come across 'Bloody Red Tabs' but, on your recommendation, I shall search it out.

As to was there an alternative, the answer seems clear, even to one such as I who has little knowledge of such things. (As a brand new student of the Great War, I am here to listen and learn, which of course explains this topic) That answer must be anything.

Literally anything which avoided a repetition of the above pattern. Including sitting still and thinking about it some more. Having run into a brick wall and come away bloody would appear to suggest that doing it again, and again, is a less than brilliant idea. And not coming up with any significant innovative ideas (with exception of the tank. That I admit was genius, though the execution seems to have been bungled) in four years of static warfare would again appear to suggest that the professional competence of the top military men was, to understate the case, questionable.

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Significant innovative ideas? (Both sides)

Mapping

Detection of enemy artillery through sound ranging

Detection of enemy artillery through flash spotting

Gas

Tanks

Aircraft

Wireless

it goes on and on and on and so does the tactical development that went with these things.

Defence in depth

Stormtroop units and infiltration

Unregistered artillery firing

Ground denial (mustard, ground strafing)

All-arms units

All-arms co-operation

Air-dropped supplies

Strategic bombing

it goes on and on and on ...

The execution of the tank was bungled? Try telling that to Ludendorff on 8 August 1918.

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I dont think that it is in doubt that there was learning, advancement in military tatics and innovations. I have always thought that to be a given. The facts are there that the armies of all nations were better able to fight a war of the magnitude in 1917/18 than they were in 1914. To me the question has always been, did they learn quick enough and did some ever learn.

A question. Do you consider the Blitzkrieg of WW2 as an innovative tatic?

In 1918 the British army combined artillery, with infantry, air and tanks in operations to create what the Germans refined in WW2!

regards

Arm

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Significant innovative ideas? (Both sides)

... snip ... on 8 August 1918.

Hmmmmmm. Good points all.

I shall have to retire to the fireside with a bit of single malt and mull this over. However, right off the top and before any detailed mulling, if the end result of the innovations you detail (and I agree, my use of 'no significant innovations' was over hasty) was simply to better support yet another frontal assault by the PBI and ended with the same horrific casualties and gains (if any) of a few more acres of wretched mud, can this then properly be called an advance in tactics or strategy? Was it not simply a more complex, costly, even elaborate way of delivering the same old idea, dressed up?

The basic problem, it seems to me at this point in my thought process (so called), was that the power of the defence had vastly, and rapidly, outstripped the ability of the offence to successfully deal with it. Innovations (there, I admit it!) there were but the basic formula was left unchanged. Refusing to admit, or possibly even recognize, that the battlefield had changed, the allied military leaders simply tried to do what they had always done, with the artillery softening up the enemy, the infantry closing with and gaining possession of the ground while the calvary waited in the wings to sweep through to the enemies rear areas. That this was no longer possible, notwithstanding the innovations you mention, was apparently not understood at the highest levels of military leadership.

No crime there. I am sometimes more than a bit slow on the uptake myself, as any who have followed my words to this point will happily attest. The failure (and this is the key point and the nub of my original question) of the senior officers to learn, and to learn in spite of repeated and appalling demonstration, that they could no longer soldier in the same old way, that their basic formula was not working, bespeaks to me of a fundamental failing in their collective professional ability. What say you?

That noise you hear is me settling down with my glass to ponder all that the Forum is teaching me.

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I bring to mind the fact that Haig insisted on being shown tanks crossing a recreated section of the Hindenburg line to demonstrate that they could really get across the widened trenches (using fascines) before he would sanction the Cambrai attack. His reason was that if the tanks failed to breach the defences the casualties amongst both the tank crews and the infantry would be unacceptable.

This does suggest a certain knowledge of the ground and some forward thinking.

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can this then properly be called an advance in tactics or strategy?

Grand strategy - no - and none of the Generals business

Theatre strategy - the strategy in France was and remained the defeat of the main body of the main enemy, i.e. a military defeat.

Operational strategy - the domain of Haig but hugely influenced by being in coalition with France - developed greatly in 1918 but enabled by the tactical developments and operational capabilities advances mentioned above. I agree with you in that this aspect of strategy was probably slowest to develop.

Tactics - arguably the domain of Corps, Divisional and Brigade Generals - to go from massed ranks of riflemen and cavalry to the mechanised all-arms warfare of 1918 is a spectacular development in only four years, surely.

the power of the defence had vastly, and rapidly, outstripped the ability of the offence to successfully deal with it.

Until late 1917.

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The Generals had to keep up the attacks-the political imperative demanded it, as long as the German Army occupied parts of France and Belgium then the Allies would have to fight to clear them out.

Jon

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The last few posts have summed up my position and probably better than I could have done. One point I would like to elaborate on, sitting in the trench and waiting for things to improve was not an option for the Entente. Political and popular pressure in France and Britain meant that the Germans had to be expelled from France and Belgium with the means at hand.

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I bring to mind the fact that Haig insisted on being shown tanks crossing a recreated section of the Hindenburg line to demonstrate that they could really get across the widened trenches (using fascines) before he would sanction the Cambrai attack. His reason was that if the tanks failed to breach the defences the casualties amongst both the tank crews and the infantry would be unacceptable.

This does suggest a certain knowledge of the ground and some forward thinking.

True enough. And I would propose that had he, or another senior officer, carried that good first step forward and critically observed that same vehicle exercised in the conditions where it actually saw service (acres of muddy shell holes) as well as it's mechanical fragility, they would, perhaps have recognized too, all it's other strengths and weaknesses.

I find I must 'pull my punch's' here, as I am a big fan of the Great War tank and an admirer of those who envisioned, built and fought it. I think it was, at least potentially, a war winner in it's own right, properly used.

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Grand strategy - no - and none of the Generals business

Theatre strategy - the strategy in France was and remained the defeat of the main body of the main enemy, i.e. a military defeat.

Operational strategy - the domain of Haig but hugely influenced by being in coalition with France - developed greatly in 1918 but enabled by the tactical developments and operational capabilities advances mentioned above. I agree with you in that this aspect of strategy was probably slowest to develop.

Tactics - arguably the domain of Corps, Divisional and Brigade Generals - to go from massed ranks of riflemen and cavalry to the mechanised all-arms warfare of 1918 is a spectacular development in only four years, surely.

Until late 1917.

OK then. Having taken a weekend to mull over various GW thoughts raised above, (+shoveling snow+sampling my brothers scotch) here is more or less where I find myself at present.

Grand Strategy. I find it difficult to imagine any civilian government arriving at a grand strategy for winning a war without very significant military (and naval) input. The military were the 'experts', so called, and acknowledged as such by the politicians.

Theater Strategy. Actually, this is a curious one to me. Not being sure, I assume in this case it means the Western Front and so for our purposes means the British sector of the line in France and Belgium. I read that the French General Staff, along and behind it's bit of the front line, maintained more or less absolute rule in the Zone of the Armies (is this term correct or was that only applicable to 1914?). No news of any sort was allowed out and all decisions regarding what happened there, including tactics, movements and activities were handled by the military, operating alone, reporting to no one. Even the French Deputies were prohibited from going there without first obtaining military approval, usually denied. While I have never heard of anything nearly as draconian in the British sector, I am fairly sure, though not certain, that the degree of autonomy (and therefore responsibility) exercised by the British Staff in France and Belgium was considerable.

Operational Strategy. Not sure how much this would differ from Theatre Strategy. Bit of a gray area for me.

As to the interrelationship between the various levels of strategy, if the lowest command levels, who as you suggest were responsible for the tactics, were busy losing thousands of soldiers (I believe the average was 3 to 4 hundred a day but what was the record, 50 or 60 thousand in one day?) this would of necessity have had a very significant impact on all other aspects, from enlistment to supply to policy. I cannot accept that the tactics which bought about these kinds of losses were undertaken without the full knowledge and approval of the senior military officers, particularly as those tactics were repeated not once but many, many times over several years.

At the end of the day, or at least at this point in time, I believe that the tactic of massed artillery barrage followed by massed infantry assault really was the only idea that occurred to the senior officers, starting at division and going up to the highest uniformed ranks. I can simply find nothing concrete to show otherwise. Judged by their subsequent actions, their minds appear to have been closed. Innovations (and your list of those is a most comprehensive one. The more I think on it, the more I agree) that were developed were seen to be and used only as refinements and adjustments to this single idea. By late 1917 and into 1918, these refinements had taken that single idea about as far as it could go. Tweaked, modified and adjusted, supported, reinforced and refined, it was still, in the final analysis, massed artillery followed by massed infantry. There was indeed much multi-arm cooperation and it's development was, as you quite correctly point out, an extraordinary one, as were those advances made in the field of technology. (Interesting story about the Germans claiming to be overrun by 'hundreds' of tanks near the end, yet the facts apparently support nothing of the sort, but I digress)

I think that the victory which finally arrived was only marginally achieved or affected by any improvements in tactics, technology or inter-arms cooperation. The final crushing of the 100 days appears to me to have been primarily bought about by the gradual appearance on the battlefield of an increasingly exhausted German military machine, an enormous Allied superiority in everything from soldiers to shells to food, and only lastly, and distantly, to an increase in the (admittedly, by then much improved) Allied military skill levels and their application. The German Army, as far as I can determine from the available evidence, was not out manuevered nor out thought but was, in the end, simply bludgeoned to death.

Worn down and finally pummelled into the mud after years of irreplaceable losses, massive and constantly increasing Allied material superiority, and the continued presence in the field of brave, aggressive and determined British, as well as other, armies. If any skill there was demonstrated by senior military leaders, it would seem to be that type of skill required to convince the politicians back home that they, the military experts, knew what they were doing. No small feat that, what with having to explain away what happened at the Somme or Loos or what happened to more than 240,000 of the troops at 3rd Ypres, for example.

God, but I do run on when I get the bit between my teeth.

Right then. Kick the hell out of the above.

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