WW1 Leadership: Beyond the ‘Lions Led by Donkeys’ Myth

My good friend Andy Fenton wrote this fantastic post, which I thought I would share.

“Lions led by Donkeys” Leadership of WW1

Douglas Haig is famous in Military circles and his legacy lives on and is studied by young Officers at Sandhurst, described by many as being ‘brilliant to the top of his Army boots’.

David Lloyd George’s however described him and many of the Military leaders during this time as ‘donkeys’: moustachioed incompetents who sent the ‘lions’ of the Poor Bloody Infantry to their deaths in futile battles.

The media have echoed this description in several films and television documentaries and with a British casualty list of millions; one could be forgiven for agreeing with the sceptics.

So why do today’s young military leaders still study his tactics and decisions? Perhaps one undeniable fact is that Britain and its allies won the First World War and it’s as simple as that.

Haig’s army played the leading role in defeating the German forces in the crucial battles of 1918. In terms of the numbers of German divisions engaged, the numbers of prisoners and guns captured the importance of the stakes and the toughness of the enemy, the 1918 ‘Hundred Days’ campaign rates as the greatest series of victories ever in British history.

Even during the Somme (1916) and Passchendaele (1917), battles that have become famously described as senselessly sending soldiers to their deaths and pointless in term of tactical gain but if studied in depth it is clear they actually had sensible strategic rationales and qualified as British strategic successes, not least in the amount of attrition damage they inflicted on the Germans.

No one denies that the Army had a painful learning curve, or that the Military leadership made mistakes that had catastrophic consequences. However, before dismissing the generals as mere incompetent buffoons, we must establish the context.

Before 1914, the British army had been just a colonial police force, small but with no real Military battle experience. By 1916 it had expanded enormously, taking in a mass of inexperienced civilian volunteers. Later still, it relied on conscripts. Either way, it was a citizen army rather than a professional force of soldiers.

The generals, used to handling small-scale forces had just as much to learn about a type of war for which they were almost entirely unprepared. It is not surprising that in the course of its apprenticeship the Army had a number of bloody setbacks.

An inescapable fact of life for Haig was that Britain was the junior partner in a coalition with France and therefore the French tended to call the shots and in 1914-17 the defensive had a temporary dominance over the offensive.

A combination of ‘high tech’ weapons (quick-firing artillery and machine guns) and ‘low tech’ defences (trenches and barbed wire) made the attacker’s job formidably difficult. Communications were poor. Armies were too big and dispersed to be commanded by a single general in person but Haig remained determined to succeed.

It is also not true, as some think, that British generals and troops simply stared uncomprehendingly at the barbed wire and trenches, incapable of anything more imaginative than repeating the failed formula of frontal assaults by infantry.

In reality, the Western Front was a hotbed of innovation as the British and their allies experimented with new approaches and tactics, a brave move considering their lack of battle experience.

The problem was that in 1914 tactics had yet to catch up with the range and effectiveness of modern artillery and machine guns. At the Battle of Amiens on 8 August 1918, the Artillery put into practice the lessons learned, in a surprise attack, massed artillery opened up in a brief but devastating bombardment, targeting German gun batteries and other key positions.

The accuracy of the shelling, and the fact that the guns had not had to give the game away by firing some preliminary shots to test the range, was testimony to the startling advances in technique which had turned gunnery from a rule of thumb affair into the highly scientific business that it is today.

One cannot ignore the appalling loss of human life in World War One. Some of these losses were undoubtedly caused by unsuccessful tactics, but they were learning as they went along and that’s how we all learn….from our mistakes.

Haig was no technophobe. He actively encouraged the development of advanced weaponry such as tanks, machine guns and aircraft. He learned from experience and drove the momentum.

The result was that by 1918 the British army was second to none in its modernity and military ability. It was led by men who, if not military geniuses, were at least thoroughly competent commanders who were brave enough to learn from their mistakes and make difficult decisions.

The victory in 1918 was the payoff.

The ‘lions led by donkeys’ tag should be dismissed for what it is – a misleading caricature for robust and brave leadership in horrendous circumstances.

Andy is Fellow of the Institute of Leadership and Management, but Andy also has that rare blend of expertise and experience, having led his troops into battle 9 times. Andy knows what it takes to lead in difficult and stressful situations. To find out more check out him website Frontline Leadership

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