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The Road to a Revisionist Damascus


Greenwoodman

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Salsie,

A good point, with which I totally agree. I was simply stating that, reagardless of the 'much, much more', without the boots on the ground victory is a long way off.

Richard - please don't tell my Boss! ;)

Roxy

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I think it was Bill Slim who said All wars are infantry wars: his point being that until you had someone with a rifle and bayonet occupying a piece of ground, you hadn't won. Aeroplanes could bomb it, artillery shell it, tanks drive over it: but you needed Thomas Atkins and his bundhook to finish the job.

I would suggest that war, battle, tactics, whatever, are all abut getting Thomas Atkins (or Fritz, Ivan, or even GI Joe) on a piece of ground.

Whether Haig was right, wrong or somewhere in between, I am unable to say, but I would say that it was the BEF under Haig which allowed talent such as Husey (pre-war territorial who died commanding a Brigade in a Regular Division), or Gater (pre-war civilian who led a Brigade very successfully in 1918) to rise to the top.

For that alone I think Haig's command deserves praise. As a Manager in work life, I firmly believe that the best Managers create conditions for good people to thrive - hands-off where needed, a firm hand on the tiller where required. Management is a learned skill, I suspect - we all have an inate ability to do it well, but we need a chance to learn the job properly. Nowadays, senior officers do MBAs or attend business seminars; they have computer-generated battles to fight. Haig didn't. He had to learn as he went, and (more importantly) he was surrounded with people who were also learning as they went.

People who have read a lot more than me, and people who are a lot smarter than me have said a lot here (on both sides), and it is a pleasure to see such a rancourless thread, but I still believe no-one has answered the question successfully: who else would have done better? We can reinvent the past, but we can't change it - Haig commanded the army which won the war.

End of, as young people say these days.

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I'm feeling very uneasy about this thread. My immediate family members died in 1916 and 1917. Period. My reading about the Great War, and the circumstances of their deaths (Mametz Wood and 3rd Ypres) over 40 years tells me that the British high command were irrevocably neglectful in the strategies adopted regarding their lives. Today, I would consider the waste in which they died to be wilful and an act of manslaughter. The person responsible was Haig. Period. I have no qualms at all in attaching the blame for my great uncles' deaths squarely at his feet. With hindsight, his ineptitude in the strategies and tactics employed in 1916 and 1917 resulted in the wasting of my family's young lives. I am pre-empting criticisms in the vein "this happened 90 years ago, so don't apply 21 century values to those events". I feel ashamed that in 2008, historians are justifying his career and placing him on such a pedestal. Tin gods with feet of clay!

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In regard to Haig it wouldn't hurt to read more widely. Haig was a product of the media, (as was Kitchener). There was no instant news, internet, embedded journalists sending satellite links, --What the public got was 'the good news'. The fact that he never toured the Ypres salient and didn't realise that the ground of Passendale was bogged wasn't bought home. He, like most, commanders looked at a map before his morning ride. He never really sought intelligence, even though it was slow, outdated, and basically not relevant, by the time it reached HQ. He was prepared to win to the last man standing, ****** the cost.

"--the machine gun is a somewhat overrated as a military weapon" ?

Palestine had the best of British, Australian and NZ commanders, whereas The Western Front had a handful- Monash, Currie, Rawlinson, Birdwood, Freyberg. What made them standout was their attention to detail in the drawing up of plans WITH regard to the men who were to execute these plans.

Richard

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In regard to Haig it wouldn't hurt to read more widely................................

Richard

Hi Richard, welcome to the forum. Always good to see a new face, so to speak. If I may, might I suggest that you read a few of the threads on the forum, I believe you might find that some of the contributors to this thread have read a few books on the subject. The notion that the best commanders were confined to the Middle East would take a bit of defending. Perhaps you could start a new thread and open up a debate on it?

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Thank you Tom,

disclosure; l'm an Australian, so l like to stir the pot.

Best theatre Commanders ?--l stick with my initial thoughts.

Why so?

maybe the theatre suited the operations and the Commanders--mostly cavalry types? ie. more at comfortable in this role.

Mobile operations where they had a freer hand?

But the best Commanders on the Western front were those who could think outside the 'square'. New rules for a new war. Monash for example knew that the AIF were volunteers, he knew reinforcements weren't endless, and that his nations youth must not be wasted.

happy to hear comment

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I'm feeling very uneasy about this thread. My immediate family members died in 1916 and 1917. Period. My reading about the Great War, and the circumstances of their deaths (Mametz Wood and 3rd Ypres) over 40 years tells me that the British high command were irrevocably neglectful in the strategies adopted regarding their lives. Today, I would consider the waste in which they died to be wilful and an act of manslaughter. The person responsible was Haig. Period. I have no qualms at all in attaching the blame for my great uncles' deaths squarely at his feet. With hindsight, his ineptitude in the strategies and tactics employed in 1916 and 1917 resulted in the wasting of my family's young lives. I am pre-empting criticisms in the vein "this happened 90 years ago, so don't apply 21 century values to those events". I feel ashamed that in 2008, historians are justifying his career and placing him on such a pedestal. Tin gods with feet of clay!

I too feel unease at the human cost of WW1, Geraint - I'm on record as saying, "it was worth it, but only bloody just". I'm also, as you can tell from my posts, somewhere in the middle when it comes to Haig, neither devout nor anti - I'm on record as also saying, "Haig was not a "donkey" all of the time, but sometimes how else could he be described?".

As for you holding Haig responsible for your family members deaths. Period - do you not think that the Germans should at least carry some of the blame?

Cheers-salesie.

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Palestine had the best of British, Australian and NZ commanders, whereas The Western Front had a handful- Monash, Currie, Rawlinson, Birdwood, Freyberg. What made them standout was their attention to detail in the drawing up of plans WITH regard to the men who were to execute these plans.

Richard,

Welcome aboard.

I would add Jacob of II Corps, Maxse of XVIII Corps, Congreve of XIII Corps...All these men learnt new rules and tatics to over come the hardest of all fronts, the Western Front...If you want lower grade officers, Campbell 21st div, Tudor 9th Div,

I would question Birdwood and respectfully say that Freyberg (Brigade commander) was a very very brave man, but to low in the rank grade to qualify in the same sphere as the above names you and I mention. Also when he reached Generals rank in WW2 was not the greatest around! But to match Freybergs rank...Rawling, Gater (as mentioned above) and Cumming of 21st division (you will notice my baised) and Solly-Flood all come to mind. There were many more very competant brigade commanders

In Palenstine, the war was won by logisitcs as on all fronts. Here Allenby was beholden to the work done by Murray who organised the water and supply under his command. Murray as seen could not really handle battles but he set the foundation for Allenby (who failed misserably on the Western front) and his two able corps commanders to beat the Turks. That should not however take away the fact that Allenby had enough intelliegence to accept the correct advice etc and win the battles.

regards

Arm

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I would question Birdwood and respectfully say that Freyberg (Brigade commander) was a very very brave man, but to low in the rank grade to qualify in the same sphere as the above names you and I mention.

Arm,

I would agree with you on both of these counts. An analysis of Birdwood indicates he was very good at getting around to see the troops and was very popular with them. But looking at his performance at the tactical level I get the distinct impression that, at best, he was a good average, but not exceptional, Corps commander. IMO he was not in the same league as say Maxse or Congreve. From what I have read I get the impression he relied heavily in his divisional commanders. It was Walker who stood up to Rawlinson and insisted on more time to launch the 1st Division attack on Pozieres, resulting in a very successful action. Birdwood was just as guilty as Legge in allowing the first 2nd Division attack at Pozieres to go in with such little preparation with the resultant disaster. Nonetheless, he was elevated to Army Command to make way for Monash to take command of the Australian Corps. As you say Freyberg was too far down the command chain to be considered in the same league and on that count there were any number of good brigade commanders.

Nor do I think that there were just a handful of good Corps and Army commanders on the Western Front, there quite a few good ones. I would add Plumer as a very good Army Commander to the list; the difficulties they confronted on the Western Front were significantly greater and more complex than those in Palestine, where the major problems were logistical.

I'm afraid we Australians tend to have a very parochial view of the Great War and can be too critical of British commanders, whilst ignoring the less than impressive performances of some of our home grown commanders, such as McKay and Legge. On the other hand Walker, a British officer who commanded the 1st Australian Division, was IMO one of the best Anzac divisional commanders yet he is hardly known here. We are fortunate that both of the Australian born Corps commanders in the Great War, Chauvel in Palestine and Monash on the Western Front were exceptional. Monash, of course, was not able to operate as a Corps Commander until May 1918 when the Australian divisions (less 1st Division) came back under his command after the German offensives in March and April had been dealt with.

Cheers

Chris

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The fact that he never toured the Ypres salient and didn't realise that the ground of Passendale was bogged wasn't bought home.

I thought this was found to be false? Is there any real basis for this claim?

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Nor do I think that there were just a handful of good Corps and Army commanders on the Western Front, there quite a few good ones.

Chris

Can you suggest reasons why we often read that there was no-one among them who was perceived as being a potential C in C?

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QUOTE (Phil_B @ Jul 14 2008, 07:13 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
why we often read that there was no-one among them who was perceived as being a potential C in C?

Phil,

I wasn't aware that we often read that. Can you provide the several sources that state this? I'd need to read them to place the assessment in context.

Cheers

Chris

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Well, take post #82 as a sample. I`m not pushing the case for or against what Churchill says, just wondering why he might have said it!

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Phil,

That's hardly often - it is simply one man's opinion and I think Churchill might be somewhat prejudiced no matter how brilliant he is perceived to be. Why do you think he said it ? Is there any evidence that, say, Rawlinson or Plumer were not up to the task? If Haig had died during his tenure as C-in-C I feel sure one of the Army commanders or another full General would have been appointed to replace him and would have been up to the task.

I find it rather ironic that those who are so keen to criticise Haig and his generals cannot offer alternative solutions. They seem to think that the Western Front had easy solutions and the war could have been won with far less casualties. Perhaps those who are quite ready to condemn Haig's strategy can enlighten us what strategies should have been employed and how he could have ignored the politician's and French demands on him and his Armies. Perhaps they could also enlighten us as to how the Germans could have been encouraged not to put up such a strong fight?

Perhaps we ought to reflect on the words of H. Essame who served as a young platoon commander in the Somme battles of July and October, at 3rd Ypres in the attacks of 31 July, 16 August and late October, was wounded at Villers -Brettoneux in April 1918 and returned to his battalion in France in July 1918. He served as a battalion and brigade commander in the Second World War.

He writes:" When I am asked about the War Poets, now obligatory reading for a university degree in English, I am compelled to reply that I never met any and that their point of view was neither mine nor that of the majority of my generation with whom I came into contact. In general too, my own experience has often led me to doubt the judgments of the many talented writers who have dealt with the battles of the First War with a cock-sure self assurance which often betrays their lack of battle experience and their ignorance of the mentality of the rank and file of the armies of the period. ... Popular writers too have gained wide circulations by claiming that the British Generals were callous mediocrities driving men to their death like sheep, that the soldiers in fact were 'lions led by donkeys'. Is this a true picture? Having served under some of them during this particular war and after, I have always found this hard to believe. They at least had dignity, were honourable men and could command obedience. Now that I have had the chance to see something of their private letters and diaries I realise they were men wracked by anxiety, carrying at times an almost intolerable burden, many of them with their own sons in the forefront of battle, themselves under pressure from above almost as heavy as that which they had to impose on those below them." Source H. Essame The Battle for Europe 1918, B.T. Batsford, London, 1972. p2 (Preface)

I particularly resonate with his words "the judgments of the many talented writers who have dealt with the battles ... with a cock-sure self assurance which often betrays their lack of battle experience and their ignorance of the mentality of the rank and file of the period ... ." The same could be said of some of the posts on this forum which criticise or condemn the commanders without any regard for the responsibilities and burdens they shouldered, the political and Allied pressures they had to contend with and the insurmountable difficulties they faced in trying to breach the Western Front.

Regards

Chris

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Phil,

That's hardly often - it is simply one man's opinion and I think Churchill might be somewhat prejudiced no matter how brilliant he is perceived to be. Why do you think he said it ? Is there any evidence that, say, Rawlinson or Plumer were not up to the task? If Haig had died during his tenure as C-in-C I feel sure one of the Army commanders or another full General would have been appointed to replace him and would have been up to the task.

Chris

My own feelings exactly! But why would Churchill be prejudiced against all the other potential C in Cs? Maybe it`s difficult for highly ambitious men like Churchill and DLlG to give others due credit?

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I can willingly accept that the war was concluded by means of the combined results of the efficent organisation of the home front, the blockade, the efforts of the RN and MM, and not least the ever-improving BEF pitted against a declining (after the failure of the Kaisersschlacht) but still formidable enemy. I would suggest that we also recall the efforts and sacrifices of the allies, particularly those of France and Russia which gave the time for Britain to gather a trained, experienced mass army on the European mainland.

Mark

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Excellent post, Chris - particularly liked the sentence: "Perhaps they could also enlighten us as to how the Germans could have been encouraged not to put up such a strong fight?" Many seem to forget, or choose to ignore, the fact that there was an extremely powerful and highly effective army trying its damndest to destroy the BEF, and that it took four long, hard, bloody years before they became "encouraged" enough not to fight so hard.

Cheers-salesie.

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salesie,

beat me to it - excellent post Chris.

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That's an apt quote from Essames, Chris. Like other junior combat officers such as Charles Carrington or Sidney Rogerson, this is an example of a take on the war - how it was managed and whether it was worthwhile - which is quite different from the 'War Poet' or disillusioned lost generation schools. Specialist military historians apart, though, theirs is a voice which has been largely disenfranchised in the wider media and in the public imagination since the 1930's, as the Lions led by Donkeys (an epithet actually as insulting to the intelligence of the led as to those leading) gained supremacy over the way the war had been regarded in the first decade after its end.

Your point on the failure of Haig's critics to suggest workable alternative strategies which would have accomodated the military and political demands from both the British government and its French allies is well made. Perhaps I could quote Carrington's reflections on Haig's strategy - which are interesting not least because they were written by someone who was at the cutting edge of implementing them:

The 1916 battles were of a different character. Falkenhayn had set the pace by launching his offensive at Verdun with the deliberate intention of bringing the French armies to battle and wearing them down with repeated bombardments and assaults, a strategy of attrition not of movement. [It's worth emphasising that last sentence, I think, in light of critics who still write of Haig as if he were the father and only practitioner of a war of attrition on the Western Front. - GAC] He selected Verdun as the battleground not because its capture would give him any geographical advantage but because he was convinced - and rightly - that the French would never give it up, for reasons of prestige. He would bring them to battle there, would maintain the initiative, and would destroy the French Army in the field. He did not quite succeed and failure in a battle of attrition is likely to be disastrous to the attacker.

Joffre called upon the British to draw off the pressure by opening another battle on their front which Haig - always loyal to the French alliance - accordingly did. The Battle of the Somme was again a battle of attrition. The place and time were not what Haig thought promising but were imposed upon him by Joffre. An advance on the Somme front would bring no obvious strategic benefit; it was chosen because it was thought to be a good place to bring the German Army to battle. Haig's own view was that when a breach had been effected the British armies should turn northwards and roll up the German flank since that would bring him to a real prize in the Artois industrial region; but Joffre seems not to have been interested. He preferred to drive the Germans straight back, killing them where they stood.

Both battles, Verdun and the Somme, were partially successful in that the flower of the French Army was destroyed in one and the flower of the German Army in the other but the cost was too great. The attackers suffered heavier losses than the defenders.

The Nivelle offensive in 1917 was made irrelevant by the German withdrawal from the salient to the so-called Hindenburg Line. In Picardy they lost nothing by this withdrawal and economised by shortening and rationalising their front. In Artois they had less ground to spare and were obliged to secure the industrial region. They therefore made a shorter withdrawal in the north and covered the flank of the Hindenburg Line by a switch, or retrenchment, known as the Wotan Line, which was to give the British much trouble.

After the Nivelle offensive of 1917, the Noyon salient having gone and the threat to Paris having receded, Haig was able to return to his own strategic objectives. His consistent view had been that an attack should be launched against the German communications in Flanders. The key-point was the railway junction of Roulers, only twenty miles from Ypres and the nearest point to the battle front on the German lateral railway. Break through to Roulers and the whole German front in Flanders must collapse, freeing the Flanders coast and allowing the British full use of their sea-power, a factor that the French underrated. Haig had been secretly preparing his Flanders attack for more than a year, both by Plumer's mining operations at Messines and by plans agreed with the Admiralty for a coastal landing. In 1915 he had been compelled while still a subordinate commander to fight other battles; in 1916 he had been diverted by Joffre from Flanders to the Somme; in early 1917 the Nivelle fiasco had drawn him into battle at Arras; it was only in the summer of that year that he could fight his own chosen battle. It was too late and the weather and the mud defeated him.

The year 1918 produced a complete reversal, when the defection of Russia enabled the Germans to bring greatly preponderant numbers to the Western Front. Ludendorff's offensives were a return to the breakthrough battles of 1915 and 1917. Though he succeeded in doing what Nivelle had failed to do, again, as in 1914, the fighting qualities of the British, and French, soldiers stopped him, and again, as at the Marne, the nerve of the German Higher Command failed at the decisive point. The allies were better soldiers, and Foch and Haig were better generals than their adversaries. It is nerve that wins battles and the last battle is the one that matters.

Source: Soldier from the Wars Returning by Charles Carrington (1965), pp 303 - 305.

I largely subscribe to Carrington's analysis of events as given above. Carrington fought at the cutting edge under Haig's command, but he was also an intelligent man who immersed himself in the historiography of the war in the decades after, so his conclusions are measured ones based upon his own experience and subsequent study of the wider issues. It's been suggested that we're really all singing from the same hymn sheet here. That's probably a pretty fair assessment of our collective view of the concept of total industrial war which pertained in 1914-18, and the contributions of many arms of service (British and Allied) and government and private industry to the final victory. However, on the issue of British generalship in general, and Haig in particular, I beg to differ from some voices here. Ron has uncritically quoted one of Churchill's verdicts on Haig (and there are several, often contradictory, to choose from) : "He may have been - indeed he almost certainly was - unequal to the task, but no-one else was perceived as his equal or superior." Phil endorses that view as follows: "If that`s true, and I suspect it is literally true, it may stand as a criticism of the British top brass as a whole. Why could the French produce a Foch but we couldn`t produce someone equal to the task?" Phil also asserts that "we often read that there was no-one among them who was perceived as being a potential C in C? " But when asked by Chris to reference this can only come up with returning to the Churchill quote given by Ron. Given that I align myself in broad terms with Carrington's analysis, I cannot associate myself with such - in my view - specious arguments. I do heartily recommend Charles Carrington's book to anyone who has not yet read it - it's a book that I've found myself returning to regularly, and with pleasure, over the years.

ciao,

GAC

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Many commentators state that Hankey and Smuts were sent to the Western Front to identify a replacement, but could not suggest one. Bourne & Sheffield and Walter Reid are two which spring to mind but it is generally stated and as far as I know not called into question. Having had a look, I find that Boune & Sheffield quote D. French. " The Strategy of the Lloyd George Coalition" .

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I'm feeling very uneasy about this thread. ... snip ... I feel ashamed that in 2008, historians are justifying his career and placing him on such a pedestal. Tin gods with feet of clay!

I don't think I have ever read a thread on this forum with which I disagree more.

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Yet another excellent post, George - particularly liked Carrington's, "It is nerve that wins battles and the last battle is the one that matters."

As for Churchill being contradictory sometimes - he's the one, when returning from France just after the start of the Spring Offensive, who persuaded a sceptical Lloyd George that Haig was "the best man for the job because he would stubbornly refuse to retreat," and that the German offensive would loose force as it proceeded because it was just like "throwing a bucket of water over the floor; it first rushes forward, then soaks forward, and finally stops altogether."

Cheers-salesie.

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I don't think I have ever read a thread on this forum with which I disagree more.

But what's the point of posting that if you're not prepared to back your disagreement up with a reasoned contribution, Chris?

ciao,

GAC

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Chris, is it the post you quoted or the entire thread that you disagree with?

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It's the post. The thread is very good.

George, I didn't feel able to reply. Where do I start? It's enough to make you want to pack it all up and take up knitting.

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