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How Important Was Generalship And Leadership In The First World War?

GCSE and A level analysis of the role played by generals in the First World War

Date : 11/01/2016


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Uploaded by : Paul
Uploaded on : 11/01/2016
Subject : History

How important was Generalship and Leadership in Victory in WW1

The battles of 1917 particularly the Battle of Passchendaele and the Battle of Cambrai reveal a paralysis in the command structure of the British army not only at the highest level (GHQ or General Headquarters) but also between the command levels of army, corp and division. Both battles were continued to the point where any real aim or objective could be attained as British high command was a top down system that prevented the free flow of information, paralysed any discussion, made innovation difficult and allowed faulty decisions to stand even when the commanders at lower levels knew that there were serious problems. This has been termed ‘a pathway to misfortune’ At Cambrai in 1917 there was insufficient infantry support to exploit the gains made in the tank attack and the Cavalry was unable to get forward. The very idea that cavalry would be able to open up the holes made by the tanks in the German line shows how much thinking remained caught in the past and the initial gains were lost as the German’s deployed stormtroopers to counter-attack to the point that at the end of the battle the lines were back to where they were at the start.

Did things improve in 1818? Those that support Haig’s conduct of the war have used 1918 to argue that his policies (particularly the ‘wearing out battle’ )were essentially correct and that they worked to bring victory. By 1918 there was insufficient infantry support to General Haig and his staff did not anticipate the tactics used by the Germans in their great spring offensive of 1918 (including stormtroopers) and the British high command did not influence to victory of the last 100 days (August to November 1918) that saw the Germans defeated. In fact it can be argued that the leadership of GHQ at this point was merely symbolic as they stuck to the same old tactics and showed little understanding of the new ideas of mechanised warfare with tanks and planes and that innovation was coming not from GHQ but from divisional and corp commanders who were producing their own ideas and tactics. Haig did allow effective army commanders such as Rawlinson and corp commanders such as Currie, Haldane and Monash (who was Australian) greater freedom to innovate in mid-late 1918. The key figure was General Rawlinson who seems to have exercised much greater influence on the war at this point than Haig himself who tended to agree with every suggestion put forward by Rawlinson who suggested the attack at Amiens. Thus Haig appeared distant overbearing and out of touch with events while the Corp and divisional commanders ran the war. Haig then was probably lucky to continue as Commander-in-Chief of the British Army but his one contribution was to argue and believe that victory was possible in 1918 and not 1919! But of course the real commander of the Allies was the French General Ferdinand Foch. Foch himself was hardly an innovator, this three policies were ‘no retreat without fighting first, divisions must not be pulled out of a battle while the battle continues and what we must do we can do’ None of this is innovative or brilliant in any way but Foch did support the idea of one attack following another one and the best one can say is they his strategy and tactics (if you can call it that) matched what was needed at the time.

The reasons given for the initial success of the German attack in 1918 (The Kaiser’s Spring Offensive) specifically the poor nature of the British defences, being heavily outnumbered, the effect of the spring mists in hiding the initial German attacks, the element of surprise the Germans achieved hide the deeper failing which was that Haig and his staff failed to appreciate the need for defence in depth in preparing for the attack (which they surly knew must come given the collapse of the Russians and the urgent need for a victory in the West before the Americans could intervene in numbers) and resisting the German advance. The British in 1918 had adopted the German idea of defence in depth but a poor understanding of how it worked led to its failure at the start of the march attack. Defence in depth consisted of three zones, an outpost zone which would hold up the enemy attack and then fall back to the second or Battle zone. The Battle zone had defended locations, e,g fortified farms of machine gun nests rather than trenches and these would also be the locations for counter attacks particularly at the juncture of the battle zone and the rear zone. The problem was that there was not enough understanding of how this system was supposed to work especially in an army that had defended lines of parallel trenches for three years so when the German attack started the outposts were either overwhelmed and surrendered or fought to the death on the spot rather than retreating while maintaining cohesion. In the battle zone the army did not follow the plan and put simply the flexibility that was essential to defence in depth was lost. Communications and understanding of what was happening was quickly lost as headquarters of divisions and corps pulled back GHQ knew nothing of what was happening and in a top down system control was quickly lost . As one of the major military thinkers that was behind tank warfare JFC Fuller said on the 25th March ‘who is fighting this battle? No one. GHQ and armies know next to nothing of what is going on. Each brigade and battalion is attempting to carry out a dozen orders and counter orders at the same time. As the Corps mover their headquarters back so do the divisions. Then the fighting troops follow and position after position is abandoned’ Not surprisingly the top down system meant that the flexibility of defence in depth was lost as units waited for orders from the top that would never come as there was no understanding of what was happening at GHQ level. Fortunately the Germans also deviated from their intentions with dreadful losses as a result

While the German army was defeated in 1918 this defeat was in part achieved through the wearing out battles which the allies had forced Germany to fight from 1915 onwards (particularly Verdun, the Somme and Passchendaele) as well as the desperate defence of 1918.

However once the German offensive of March 1918 began the German High Command also contributed to its own defeat through poor tactics from March to July because the German High Command (OKL) deviated from its own plan of exploiting the gaps and not attaching where opposition was strong a disastrous change of policy that led to ever greater German casualties especially amongst the elite stormtroopers that were used to open up the enemy’s defences. The high hopes of victory carried in the hearts of German soldiers meant that when the battle turned against them with the French counter-attack of 18th July and the British counter-attack at Amiens in August German morale collapsed in the face of mobile warfare in August September and October 1918.

Alternatives to traditional forms of warfare were opening up (use of tanks and ground attack planes) but by the end of August but these were not fully developed into an all arms army. Instead GHQ emphasised an infantry army where all other branches of the army came secondary to the infantry. This was even true in the later stages of the Amiens battle were artillery predominated so that it was really the concept of attrition aided by traditional and semi-traditional technology that ended the war. Tanks were used with success in the Battle of Amiens but high losses and mechanical breakdown saw their number diminish quickly. Of the 688 tanks used on August 11th 480 had to be handed over to salvage and repair units as too badly damaged to continue. Two hundred tanks were available on August 12th and large number were again available on the 17th August but this was still an innovative weapon, the crews inside were poisoned by the hot fumes of the engine, they suffered regular mechanical breakdown and could be knocked out by artillery fire. By late August the British had lost confidence in tanks and had gone back to the tried and trusted combination of infantry supported by artillery, a formula that they used until the end in November.

The last few months of WW1 may have been more fought in the open but the butcher’s bill continued with the British suffering as many casualties between August and November as they did in the German attack between March and July to the point that the casualty list was worse than that of 1917 with its horrific battle of Passchendaele.


While tanks and technology played a role in 1918 it was a case of massive amounts of technology in the form of tanks supporting often poorly trained troops or worn out troops in set piece battles. Where troops were experienced it is a case of experienced in what? And of course tanks were new and the British were trying to learn and fight at the same time. Where new tactics and ideas were being tried it was at Corp and divisional level and detached from any contact from GHQ. As such one can see that little of any lasting effect would be learnt and the nation that recognised the importance of tanks and tank tactics were the German’s not the British after 1918.

Haigh was prepared for another ‘wearing out’ battle in 1918, ironically in some ways he got this for when the British and French counter-attacked in August the German army was weakened and worn out. It is impossible to see the Somme and Passchendaele as anything other than serious high command errors, there were better and easier ways of winning than yet another massive push to break the German lines by sheer weight of numbers and indeed the strategy of bite and hold was being developed where limited attacks seized sections of the German line and then consolidated to hold them against counter-attack but this was the ideas of subordinate commanders and not Haig and GHQ. So the story of 1918 is one of miscalculation and retreat in the March attack, followed by foot dragging over the use of tanks and then in the last 100 days a return to traditional forms of warfare (infantry-artillery attack). However unpalatable it might be to acknowledge it Haig’s policy of the ‘wearing down attack’ at the Somme and Passchendaele (essentially attritional warfare) did help bring victory in 1918.

Britain and France won in 1918 through determination, sacrifice, ‘wearing down’, technology and German strategic and tactical errors. They had been led by a generation of senior officers schooled in the tactics of 19th C warfare gathered from small scale colonial wars. With the massive expansion of WW1 many of these senior officers had been promoted way beyond their abilities and experiences. However a new generation of military leaders came out of WW1 and they would use their experiences to develop a new style of technological warfare over the next twenty years. Lt. Colonel JFC Fuller would be the Guru of tank tactics and he would remain in the wilderness of a British post war policy that planned for no major war and believed that a conflict like WW1 could never come again! In such thinking where very much reduced military spending was the vogue and policing the empire the aim where then was the role for the tank and its tactics. Meanwhile the rump of the German army led by figures such as Heinz Guderian who had read Fuller’s books and understood his thinking put boxes on bicycles called them tanks and started to develop the tactics that became Blitzkreig in 1940, a truly all arms system of strategy and tactics where infantry, tanks, artillery and planes worked together and not separately. So while the British would in time produce a Montgomery the Germans would produce a Rommel.

This resource was uploaded by: Paul

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