much-criticised generals of the First World War tended to be elderly men who
had grown up in the cavalry-dominated armies of the late-nineteenth
century. They did not understand the new technology that had led
to the stalemate of the trenches, and their dream was always to smash a hole
in the line so that the cavalry could go through and restore open
warfare. Meanwhile, in their bloody attempts to break the German
Front, they were content, in Winston Churchill's words, 'to might machine-gun
bullets with the breasts of gallant men'. Moreover, they and their
staff officers lived in comfortable headquarters far from the
Front. They understood little of local conditions as they drew up
their battle plans.
came to GHQ from journeys over the wild desert of the battlefields, where men
lived in ditches, muddy, miserable in all things but spirit, as to a place
where the pageantry of war still maintained its old and dead tradition...
It was as though men were playing at war here, while others, sixty miles away,
were fighting and dying, in mud and gas waves and explosive barrages.
one saw the Commander-in-Chief starting for an afternoon ride, a fine figure,
nobly mounted, with an escort of Lancers. A pretty sight, with
fluttering pennons on all their lances, and horses groomed to the last
hair. it was prettier than the real thing beyond the Somme, where
dead bodies lay in upheaved earth among ruins and slaughtered
of War (1920)
GHQ = General Headquarters
First World War astonished its generation. It is understandable,
therefore, that exaggerations should grow up about it. Some of
these wrong ideas have been accepted, and are now part of our 'folk memory' of
the war. When a wrong idea has been generally accepted, it is
called a 'myth'. What are the myths of the Great War?
The following come from an important book, The Smoke and the Fire, by
the historian John Terraine.
the First World War was the deadliest experience in human history.
A whole generation of young men was wiped out - and this led to the loss of
our position as a great power.
About 13 million people died during the First World War - an horrific figure,
but the death toll for the Second World War was over 36 million soldiers and
civilians. The entire British Empire lost about one million
soldiers dead in the First World War, fewer than any of the main European
powers (compare Germany, 1.8 million dead; Russia, 1.7 million; France, 1.3
million and Austria, 1.2 million).
'Futility' of the Somme
The battle of the Somme was 'the most gigantic, tenacious, grim, futile and
bloody fight ever waged in the history of war' (Lloyd George).
Britain lost 415,000 men killed or wounded during the Battle of the Somme -
2950 men a day. This shocked the British because it was their
first experience of modern warfare - up till then the French had dome
all the hard fighting. Hence the horror and the
revulsion. But the Somme was just typical
mass-warfare. For comparison, the Russians lost 4.5 million
casualties a day during the German invasion of 1941 - 23,316 a
day. The battle was not futile (wasted). By the end of
the battle the German army 'had been fought to a standstill as was utterly
worn out'; the battle ;turned the tide' of the First World War.
The British soldiers were lions, but they were led by donkeys - stupid
'amateurish' generals who could not think of any way to win the war but to
slaughter men until one side was ground into submission. It was fine for
them - safe behind the lines in their comfortable chateaux!
British Generals worked hard - usually 14 hours a day. Generals
had not gone into battle with their men for centuries (it is a stupid
idea); but they kept as close a contact with their men as possible, and
some went onto the battlefield. They were quick to introduce new
technology and ideas - gas, tanks, aeroplanes, flame-throwers, wireless
telegraphy, motor cars, dawn attacks, mines, ferro-concrete. the
nature of the war (a conflict of whole nations) meant that there was no
alternative, given the technology of the time, to a war of attrition (wearing
D Clare, The
Twentieth Century (1995)