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World War I Thursday, 5 November, 1998, 18:37 GMT
Lions led by donkeys?
Men go off to war
Troops leaving for the front from London's Victoria station
By Peter Simkins, Senior Historian at the Imperial War Museum

World War 1:Special Section
As we approach the 80th anniversary of the armistice that brought the fighting in the Great War to an end, public perceptions of that war - particularly in Britain - are still dominated by images of the Somme and Passchendaele, of futile frontal attacks against machine guns in the mud of Flanders, of generals who were little more than "butchers and bunglers", and of brave front-line troops who were sacrificed because of the ill-conceived plans of incompetent staff officers. In short, ordinary British and Dominion Officers were "lions led by donkeys".

Battle of the Somme 1916
Images of Somme and Passchaendale persist
The myth of the uncaring general - safely dining and drinking in his chateau while the front-line troops lived and died in squalor - has proved especially durable - and has been reinforced recently by Stephen Fry's portrayal of just such an officer in BBC's Blackadder Goes Forth.

What is much less widely known is that 78 British and Dominion officers of the rank of Brigadier General and above died on active service in the First World War while a further 146 were wounded. These figures alone show that, contrary to popular belief, British Generals frequently went close enough to the battle zone to place themselves in considerable danger.

Again, whereas the Somme and Passchendaele remain familiar names, the huge successes of the British and Dominion forces under Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig between 8 August and 11 November 1918 are now largely forgotten by the British public.

Prisoners of war
German prisoners of war being treated before being taken to camps in England
During the period known as the "Hundred Days", the British and Dominion divisions on the Western Front won a dozen major victories - the greatest series of victories in the British Army's whole history, and also the only time in British history that the British Army has engaged and defeated the main body of the main enemy in a continental war.

In the process, Haig's armies took 188,700 prisoners and 2,840 guns - only 7,800 prisoners and 935 guns less than those taken by the French, Belgian and American armies combined.

These successes were not the result of accident or luck. They were, of course, achieved above all by the courage and endurance of the front-line soldiers.

But the senior commanders too played their part. They did, after all, oversee and encourage the tactical and technological improvements which transformed the abilities and striking-power of Britain's first ever mass citizen army between 1916-1918.

Royal Flying Corps
The Royal Flying Corps dropped supplies by parachute
By August 1918, Haig's forces were employing supply, gun-carrying and fighting tanks; ground-attack aircraft; armoured cars; motor machine-gun units; wireless; overhead machine gun barrages; and supply drops of ammunition by parachute.

As the historian Ian Malcolm Brown has pointed out in his recent book British Logistics on the Western Font (Praeger 1998), all this was made possible by an excellent administrative and transport system that, in 1918, not only enabled Haig to deliver attacks of tremendous power but also to switch the point of attack to another sector at short notice - so keeping the Germans off balance.

In the trenches
Successes were achieved through the courage and endurance of the front-line soldiers
In late September 1918, the British Fourth Army, for example, fired some 750,000 shells in four days before the assault on the Hindenburg line. British gunners, in particular, could now bring down enormous volumes of fire on a specific target or provide a moving curtain of shells with great accuracy in front of the infantry to screen them as they advanced.

If we are prepared to criticise Haig and his army commanders for their mistakes in 1916 and 1917, then it is perhaps only fair that, at the same time, they should receive due credit for their decisive, but forgotten victories in 1918.

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