Were British Generals Incompetent?

Topics: England

The First World War was a horrific war that started on the 28 July 1914 and lasted until the 11 November 1918. The two sides who fought in the War were The Triple Entente and The Triple Alliance. France and Belgium was the meeting point of these sides. And so most of the fighting that Britain was involved in took place in these two countries – across the Western Front. In order to protect them and have some private planning time, both sides dug trenches; however the trenches were overcrowded, wet and muddy, they also became the final resting place for millions of young men.

These once simple shelters had transformed into complex defensive systems by 1915. Trench-foot was a common disease due to the muddy conditions; feet turned gangrenous and in many cases led to amputation. The soldiers were never alone in the trenches; many creatures also made the trenches their home. These creatures were to play a big role in the health of the fighting soldiers as they were all carriers of disease and infections and they ate the dead human bodies.

Creatures include rats, mice and lice.

Infantry charged replaced the cavalry charge; the main tactic used was going ‘over the top’ however defenders swept the advancing attackers with machine gun fire, and even when the attackers captured forward positions it was impossible for them to keep them. Also, artillery became more powerful compared to the old inaccurate guns that were once used. Weapons included the Bayonet, Lee Enfield rifle, hand grenades and the eight bullets a second machine gun.

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Tanks were another weapon used to crush barbed wire and spray the enemy with machine gunfire.

However the tanks were still not developed enough; they moved very slowly and they were not most broke before reaching the German’s trenches. The Battle of the Somme was the biggest disaster in the whole of the First World War. The initial plan was an attack on the enemy by the French with British support, however the tables turned and Germany attacked Verdun. An offensive was launched around the River Somme to divert attention away from Verdun where the French were close to surrender. Sir Douglas Haig was appointed leader of this offensive.

Haig was born in Edinburgh on 19 June 1861 into a wealthy family who owned a whisky business. He studied at Oxford University and the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. He then served as a cavalry officer for nine years, mainly in India. He also took part in the Sudan campaign (1897 – 1898) and the Boer War (1899 – 1902). The objective of the offensive was to gain territory, to ease the violence of the French and to kill as many German people as possible. The initial plan was a twelve hour bombardment which meant that thousands of Germans would be killed; barbed wire and machine gun positions would also be destroyed.

On the first day of July 1916 at 7:28 am the offensive started with the explosion of 5 mines placed under German territory. At 7:30 am, thousands of soldiers were ordered b Haig and other leaders to walk up to the German frontline. The place that the infantry walked enable the German time to set up their machine guns and within hours around 60,000 soldiers were hit – a third of them killed. However Haig and the leaders did not change their tactics until the end of the war. An historical interpretation is when an event id described from different points of view.

Evidence (e. g. secondary research), personal interpretation of an event and opinion all play a big role of a historical interpretation. A historical interpretation can also change with the time because new evidence always comes to light. The Battle of the Somme is one of the events that have been interpreted. Many historians argue that the Battle of the Somme was a disaster because leaders like Haig used the wrong tactics and out-of-date methods like the infantry charge which resulted in many casualties.

These leaders believed that if they did it often enough and with enough men then they would wear the Germans down and eventually break through, which did happen but it cost too many lives. However other historians will interpret the event differently and say that so many lives were lost due to the weaponry used(the shells that were intended at the German lines were made by inexperienced munitions workers and only a third of them went off. ), the German tactics and inexperienced soldiers and leaders like Haig were not to blame.

Interpretations about leaders like Haig have unsurprisingly changed overtime. Criticisms of leaders like Haig began to appear during the war. In July 1916, Haig was criticised by many including Winston Churchill and resentment was apparent between Prime Minister Lloyd George and Haig. At the same time everyone wanted to portray an image of leaders like Haig as an inspiring, and good commander who was a good role model for his troops. By the 1920s people wanted to forget all that happened and move on. For ten years, all the evidence seemed to support leaders like Haig, after the British did win the war.

However historians began to claim that there was a government cover-up in favour of generals like Haig and by the end of the 1920s attitudes began to drastically change. Books were beginning to criticise leaders like Haig and blaming them for the horror and pointlessness of the war. By 1930s people began to realise that the First World War was not the ‘war end all wars’ as promised. The first interpretation “leaders like Haig are incompetent” is shown in source B1. This is a source written by John Laffin, a military historian that researched the war from soldiers’ viewpoint.

This source clearly expresses that generals like Haig are to be blamed for large amount of soldiers that died and that these leaders should never be forgiven for the disaster. Laffin earned his living by taking people on tours around the battlefield this makes him trustworthy because he would have to teach people the right information in order to make the tour successful. The source was written in 2003 which makes the source reliable because there was a lot of evidence that Laffin could have used to produce the source.

However the fact that information given to the people on tour was based on soldiers’ viewpoints makes the source unreliable because the majority of soldiers would probably have a negative viewpoint of the war because of the amount of soldiers that died. Also, in the period between the end of the war and 2003, interpretations of what happened in the Battle of the Somme significantly changed and Laffin seems to ignore them all and use the negative viewpoints of the soldiers.

The source is also limited because the source, an extract from a book, could have been intended for a certain audience and will inevitably have Laffin’s opinion which is based on the negative feedback he researched. Also, the title of the book that Laffin wrote “British Bunglers and Bunglers of World War One” automatically alludes us to the opinion of Laffin, that leaders like Haig were the reason why so many men were killed.

Laffin suggests that leader’s like Haig were responsible for the slaughter of many soldiers. In summary the source is useful because it helps us understand, whether true or not, why people think that these leaders were incompetent because “they knew what they were doing”, for example the leaders used out-of date methods, General Douglas Haig had insisted in using cavalry like he did on the dry African Plains.

One way in which people interpret leaders like Haig are incompetent is because of his tactics; this is seen in Source B2 which describes leaders like Haig as murderers, and this source could’ve been used by Laffin to generate his interpretation in the previous source. The source is a diary written by a Private who fought in the Battle of the Somme. Diaries are not intended for public use, therefore the writer will write his true opinions in the diary entry, however the opinion will obviously biased, and his opinion is clear in the source that leaders like Haig should be “hung, drawn and quartered”.

The fact that he was a solider fighting in the Somme makes the source reliable because he witnessed what had happened on July 1916; he had to witness the people he had fought alongside being killed because of the instructions that were given by leaders like Haig therefore he would have an instant negative opinion of leaders like Haig. The date that the source was written, 1916, makes the source reliable because it was at the exact time that the battle of the Somme happened therefore it would be accurate portrayal of what was happening at the beginning of the Battle of the Somme.

In conclusion the source is useful and reliable because it is from a soldier who actually fought in the devastating battle therefore the opinion would be a valid one; he actually witnessed all the killing and was probably instructed to follow the same fate as the rest of the men. Laffin would have used Smith’s opinion to his advantage in order to come up with his own interpretation because it supports his opinion. Next, it’s not just historians that criticise Haig’s competence as shown in source B4 where British Prime Minister David Lloyd George says that General Douglas Haig was a “second-rate commander”.

The source is reliable because the Prime Minister wrote the source during World War One – he would have been given information about the vast numbers of those who died especially on the first day of the battle of the Somme; thus, the negative attitude towards leaders like Haig is not surprising. According to some research I have undertaken, Lloyd George was a successful political journalist and the information in the book was well-researched; one of his sources being the Cabinet Minutes in which he looked over the military details.

However the fact that the Prime Minister David Lloyd George was talking about his war-time experiences is very ironic because he didn’t fight during the war and didn’t know about the other conditions that the soldiers had to live through e. g. trench foot. The source is also limited because it is evident that the source was intended to portray a certain message; the book seems to establish Lloyd George’s reputation as a war leader and at the same time destroy the reputation of Haig and leaders like Haig.

In conclusion the source is reliable and useful because Lloyd George’s interpretation of events, whether true or not, seems to come from a good source i. e. the Cabinet Minutes. This source could have been used by Laffin as the source is the opinion of one of the most important men at the time of the war and this opinion supports the interpretation generate by Laffin. Next, leaders like Haig were known to stay in the communication trenches, which were miles away from the front line, whilst the soldiers lived in trenches near the front line.

Also, it is obvious that these commanders did not fight in the battle but just gave the orders. This is shown in source B6, a cartoon about World War One leadership published in 1917 by a satirical magazine. The source clearly explains that leaders like Haig were absent during “the real thing”. The source is reliable because it was written during the war and by 1917 criticisms of leaders like Haig were beginning to surface.

The source is also reliable because a lot of research would have been undertaken in order to confidentially publish this article especially because leaders like Haig were still seen as inspiring awe-commanders. However, the magazine will have to be sold and therefore have to entertain the audience; the purpose of the source makes the source unreliable because the source is inevitably exaggerated. The date in which the source is written also limits the source because February 1917 was only 6 months into the battle and therefore the whole picture is not given in this illustration.

Overall the source is reliable and useful because it helps us understand that some people thought that the absence of the leaders could have been one of the most important factors which led to so many deaths; a lot of people blamed it on inexperienced soldiers yet the experienced generals were kept hidden. Laffin could have used this source to come up with his own interpretation because this viewpoint because it shows that leaders like Haig were not as inspiring and awe commanding as they were perceived to be but people who didn’t follow their own old tactics.

In conclusion, source B1, B2, B4, and B6 are all useful and reliable in helping me understand why leaders like Haig were labelled as incompetent. Firstly, source B1 is a direct interpretation itself which blatantly expresses that leaders like Haig were incompetent. Secondly, source B2 tells me that leaders like Haig were viewed as incompetent because of the tactics he used. This backs up my knowledge; leaders like Haig used old tactics. On the 1st of July 1916 leaders like Haig enforced the tactic that led many to their deaths: infantry.

This made sure that the men slowly walked across to the German trenches after heavy bombardment, which itself was a failure, this slow pace allowed the Germans to re-establish themselves and launch their defence. Source B4 also alludes to the opinion that leaders like Haig’s tactics were not good and were useless on such an “immense battlefield”. Source B6 suggests that the inexperienced soldiers had a part to play in the disaster but it was not their fault but of the fault of the experienced leaders like Haig who were not willing to join in the fighting.

These sources increase my understanding as to why so many historians argue that leaders like Haig were incompetent. From the sources I have chosen, I am able to understand that historians believe that if leaders like Haig tried other tactics and participated more in the battle then it wouldn’t have ended in such a disaster. I think based on the amount of people who died just on the first day that this interpretation is a valid one. However, other historians have interpreted that leaders like Haig are competent and believe that leaders were not to blame for the Battle of the Somme.

This interpretation is shown in source B9, it explains that leaders like Haig were not incompetent and the reason why so much people died was due to other factors. This source is reliable because of the date in which it was written; this allowed the author, John Terraine, to use enough evidence that had been researched throughout the years up until 1980. Terrain is a historian which means he is able to analyse and assess sources well, this makes the source reliable because Terrain would have analysed each source and I assume that Terraine used reliable and most useful ones to come up with his interpretation.

The source is also unreliable because it is intended for people to buy the book and therefore a certain level of exaggeration and entertainment will be present. In the source Terraine says that leaders like Haig “rose to challenge after challenge” however leaders like Haig remained in the communication trenches whilst the privates fought the blood stained war, thus they didn’t rise to any challenge.

Also between the war and 1980 many different interpretations have arisen yet Terraine seems to ignore all of these new interpretations, he has focused on the interpretation that these so called war heroes were not to blame and the fault was due to the other contributing factors which worsened life for the soldiers in the trenches like trench foot. Source B1 is an example of an interpretation which supports the interpretation that leaders like Haig are incompetent. The author of this source, John Laffin, researched the war from soldier’s viewpoints and has been able to come with a negative interpretation.

However, source B11 is written by a former soldier who was gassed during the Battle of the Somme and brought to Britain because of it. Liddell Hart, writing to the Daily Express, says that the leadership was excellent and “flawless”. The source is reliable because Liddell Hart was actually present during the Battle therefore his opinion should be based on what he witnessed and leadership skills of leaders like Haig. The source is also useful because it helps us think of the other factors that caused the soldiers to die if it wasn’t because of the leadership.

Both sides did not know how to use the new weaponry correctly, for example gas. Gas was a new form of defence, it was a very deadly weapon and it killed alot of people; mustard gas ensured that the lungs had dissolved in a matter of hours causing a slow and painful death. On the other hand, the source is limited because Liddell Hart was invalided back to Britain in December which means he did not witness the whole war therefore we are not getting the whole picture of how leadership was.

We can infer the source and say that the purpose of the source can somewhat make the source unreliable. In more depth, the Daily Express would publish this letter and in order to keep the British morale high nothing negative would have to be published. The British public want to know that their loved ones are in the safe hands of good leaders and therefore this source helps achieve this for them. Overall, the source is useful and reliable because it helps us understand why others do not blame leaders like Haig for the vast amount of deaths.

Terraine could use this source to create his own interpretation because it clearly states that leaders like Haig were great therefore alluding to the opinion that the leaders like Haig were not to blame for the disaster. Some historians believe that the inexperienced soldiers should be blamed for the vast majority of deaths. Source B13 are diary entries that belonged to Haig himself which he used as the bass for his reports to the War Cabinet.

The diary entries are dated the 31st of June and 1st of July 1916 which makes the source the source reliable because it is a day before and the actual date of the first day of the Somme. Haig says that on the men are in “splendid spirits” which suggests that the soldiers were unprepared the soldiers were for the disaster that was going to happen and how much they underestimated the German army. Perhaps these soldiers are the inexperienced ones; a lot of soldiers at the time were inexperienced due to conscription and propaganda; people just wanted to fight for their country.

Haig also says that the soldiers “have never before been so instructed and informed” which suggests that the leadership was so good that no-one was in doubt of the upcoming task. The source is also reliable because a diary contains someone’s inner thoughts and feelings that aren’t really revealed to anyone, assuming that these diary entries are Haig’s real thoughts and feelings (a leader wouldn’t want to send many to their slaughter without feeling bad even if it was for the right reasons).

According to research, Haig was a brilliant self-publicist that was recognised throughout the nation, if we infer the source we can say that the diary entry was just another means of propaganda. The source is also limited because Haig says that the attack on the 1st of July 1916 was a “very successful attack” however he does not mention the reasons as to why it was such a success. Overall, the source is not very useful or reliable because the person behind the source is the actual person who different historians argue for and against.

Haig would obviously want to perceive himself as a great leader therefore making this source unreliable. Historians who share the same interpretation as Terraine could use this source to form their interpretation that support leaders like Haig because this source shows that the leadership was good enough and the men seemed happy with the instructions they were given, therefore it is not the fault of the leaders. Terraine could have also used this source because it suggests that the German defences lost more men than the British because they were “short of men” whereas the British troops were “full of confidence”.

Many historians argue that if leaders like Haig were to blame for the disasters, why were there so much people welcoming them home. This is shown in source B15, a photograph which shows the welcoming of Haig home in 1919. The fact that it is a photograph makes the source reliable because it is a still image of time that cannot be changed, and they did not have the technology at the time to edit the photo to such detail. The source is also useful because it shows that alot of people did not think that leaders like Haig were incompetent hence the large amount of people that were there to welcome home their so called ‘hero.

However, the provenance of source is unknown therefore this makes the source unreliable – for all we know this photograph could have been taken by the government for propaganda purposes. The source is also limited because it does show any other interpretations after 1919; by the 1930s people began to question the competence of leaders like Haig but by the 1960s balanced arguments had formed. In summary the source is reliable and useful because it outlines the interpretations from straight after the war even if they did begin to change.

Terrain could of used this source to aid him create his own interpretation because the source clearly illustrates that leaders like Haig were generally respected and were seen as war heroes, and as a result of them adapting“ themselves to constant change with astonishing success” so many people turned up to welcome them home. In conclusion source B9, B11 and B15 are all useful and reliable in helping me understand why historians believe that leaders like Haig were good leaders. Source B9 suggests that leaders like Haig fought their part of the war just as much as all the other soldiers, however all other evidence argues against this idea.

Although leaders like Hag might not have fought the war physically, I think that the job of trying to come up with a good enough plan in order to win the battle and then instructing the men to do it would have been hard itself, and to be fair to leaders like Haig, the British people did eventually win the war – just like Haig had promised. Source B11 suggests that the leaders like Haig were good leaders and that they could not be faulted. Source B15 is reliable because it is a photograph that clearly illustrates that leaders like Haig were not seen as the fault of the losses.

Maybe this is due to the lack of evidence that was published at the time (against Haig) or people simply sympathised with Haig because with the decisions he was faced with. However the same cannot be said about source B13. In my opinion source B13 is unreliable because the provenance of source is untrustworthy. I can assume that Haig would obviously try to show himself as a good leader therefore anything he says could just be exaggerated and untrue. All of these sources help me understand that there were other factors that caused the vast number of deaths and the fault wasn’t only in the hands of leaders like Haig.

It makes me think about the other factors that made war life difficult for the soldiers. For example, the rats and lice which carried disease around the trenches or the trench foot which disabled alot of soldiers from fighting. Other contributing factors could be the underage, inexperienced soldiers or the misuse of the new weaponry. I also think that this interpretation is valid based on the sources that I have evaluated because each source gives a reason as to why leaders like Haig were not incompetent.

Cite this page

Were British Generals Incompetent?. (2017, Nov 02). Retrieved from https://paperap.com/paper-on-some-people-have-the-view-that-british-generals-like-haig-were-incompetent-leaders/

Were British Generals Incompetent?
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