History Today subscription

Was Stalemate on the Western Front the Fault of the Generals?

Andy Lawrence insists that we must think for ourselves to unravel one of the great historical conundrums.

Verdict: Yes. The Lions were indeed led by Donkeys – Evidence of military incompetence. 

1. Allowing personal grudges and ambition to influence military decisions. The British Army that went into the trenches was riven by intrigue, faction and personal rivalries. The tragedy for the ordinary Tommies was that the divisions within the High Command were to play themselves out on the front line. Examples are legion. At the battle of Loos Sir John French wanted personal control of reserves. He therefore did not allow Haig, commander on the spot, to have them until it was too late, and the attack consequently failed causing thousands of casualties. Sir John French also allowed personal grudges to colour his judgement of another subordinate. In 1914 Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, a prewar rival of French’s, was summarily dismissed when he asked to perform a tactical withdrawal to a better position. Once Smith-Dorrien had been sacked, French ordered the troops to move back to the position that Smith-Dorrien had suggested. This was strategy based on personal grudge rather than sound military judgment, and it was the troops that were paying the price.  

To read this article in full you need to be either a print + archive subscriber, or else have purchased access to the online archive.

If you are already a subscriber, please ensure you are logged in. 

Buy Subscription | Buy Online Access | Log In

If you are logged in and still cannot read the article, please email digital@historytoday.com.

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week
X