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Busting the First World War Myths

By December 18, 2012 No Comments

While a few Canadians (besides the writer) and probably even fewer Americans are paying close attention to the Bicentennial of the War of 1812 and the centennial season for the First World War is rapidly coming up, veterans of the war were still very common going into the 1980s. The last of the millions who served in that war died early in 2012.

There was, however, an awkward disjunction between the First World War veterans and the rest of us. This might seem reasonable against the passage of generations and perspectives that remembered the mores of Edwardian times in the dawning days of MTV music videos and desktop computers. Yet today’s Second World War veterans are understandable, we comprehend their war and appreciate their deeds with a respect that wasn’t always accorded to the vets of the First World War.

Paul Fussell (himself an American infantry veteran of the Second World War) tried to understand this disjunction in his 1975 book The Great War and Modern Memory but – aside from the literati – seems to have failed. He examined some of the contemporary poetry and essays written during the First World War, but then also turned to the survivor’s post-war writings and mined that too. However, by that time, the perception of the war had already changed – and so had the writing of the participants.

There might be three reasons for that change. First, as Fussell himself explored about his own war, there is a vast gulf in the perception of the First World War from home-front audiences to what the combatants experienced. In the English-speaking world, audiences were fed a diet of images of care-free light-hearted soldier boys and they seldom got a clear sense of what the trenches could really be like (even though the ‘regrets’ telegrams kept coming thick and fast). The soldiers themselves understood that they had been through experiences they could never relate and so they seldom tried.

The second reason relates to the sheer collective psychological trauma that the war inflicted, even on the winners. The staggering cost in money, material, and – above all – in lives essentially derailed the progressive, optimistic spirit of the 19th Century and left the world prone to the infectious “isms” of a variety of ideologues. The aftermath of even a victorious major war (let alone a losing one) is very hard for a society to deal with.

This then led directly to the third reason. The war caused huge damage to the old order and a variety of new beliefs vied to take over, not the least those of the Left and the Marxists. The war had to be re-written in the light of class struggle and an attack on the leftover elites. Thus, the popular narrative of the war was overwritten by a new narrative that of inept callous and uncaring leaders, class warfare in the trenches, incompetence and stupidity. Even writers like Sassoon and Graves embraced it and given their authenticity as surviving veterans of the conflict, their complicity enhanced the new myth.

Yet, the machinist, the clerk or the farmer who had been on the Somme, endured Passchendaele, and won a spectacular but bloody victory in the last months of the war but they couldn’t follow the new narrative and probably didn’t understand it that well. Besides, as the 1920s wore on into the Great Depression, they had other problems to deal with and so their own sense of their accomplishments and experiences got left behind. When they did get around to trying to share them, they found that the narrative had changed.

As the Centennial of the War approaches, we perhaps owe the shades of those machinists, clerks and farmers the obligation to strip away the myths and look at their accomplishments in a more objective manner.

There has been some remarkable scholarship in recent years, particularly by military historians going back to the original files and source documentation. Their work has also been enhanced by many amateur historians who have been doing similar work for a host of lesser books, informed websites, tour guides and other products. Of particular recommendation:

  • Frank Davies and Graham Maddocks, Bloody Red Tabs: General Officer Casualties of the Great War 1914-1918; 1995
  • Paddy Griffith; Battle Tactics of the Western Front: The British Army’s Art of Attack; 1996,
  • Gordon Corrigan; Mud, Blood and Poppycock: Britain and the Great War; 2004,
  • Richard Holmes; Tommy, the British Soldier and the Western Front; 2005,
  • Simon Robins; British Generalship on the Western Front 1914-1918: Defeat into Victory; 2005,
  • Dan Todman; The Great War: Myth and Memory; 2007,
  • John Lewis Stempel; Six Weeks: The Short and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War; 2010,
  • David Kenyon; Horsemen in No Man’s Land: British Cavalry and Trench Warfare 1914-18; 2011.

Canadian audiences are also strongly urged to refer to Tim Cook’s excellent writings on the Canadian Army in the First World War.

There are several myths that need to be staked through the heart, deeply buried and covered over with concrete to ensure they don’t come back. They include:

  1. The myth of ‘Chateau Generals’ entirely out of touch with front-line conditions,
  2. That the British (and by extension the Canadian) soldiers were “Lions led by Donkeys”,
  3. That too many Generals were obsessed by cavalry, which was entirely out of place especially on the Western Front,
  4. That the Generals and senior officers were callous and uncaring about the welfare of their men,
  5. That the war was about trade, class privilege, Imperial conceits, economics, etc…

Canada maintained four infantry divisions on the Western Front. Twice, the commander of the 3rd Division was killed in combat and the commander of the 1st Division was wounded in an arm. The British Army had the highest proportion of general officers become casualties in any of their wars between the Napoleonic Era and today with 34 generals killed by shellfire and 22 by small-arms fire. Another 22 died in service for other reasons. Clearly, they were not comfortably sprawled in chateaus all the time, and were found far forward more often than was good for them.

Australians and Canadians took pride in seeing their Corps commanders Monash and Currie marching around in the mud, eyeballing conditions. These were not exceptional behaviours – most of the British generals who were killed or wounded were doing reconnaissance on the front lines as well. The myth that one of Haig’s generals burst into tears when touring the Passchendaele battlefield because he was ignorant of local conditions is precisely that: a myth.

The famous quote about the British army being “lions lead by donkeys” was widely repeated and attributed to the German commander Erich Ludendorff. In the 1930s, it was a perfect comment to respect the bravery of ordinary British soldiers and criticize their generals for being incompetent and stale in technique. Except that there is no proof Ludendorff ever said any such thing and many of the historians who wanted to use the quote have never been able to find out who first uttered it.

Instead, this famous criticism first seems to have been invented by an Englishwoman who was married to a German noble, Evelyn Princess Blücher, for her 1921 book about life in wartime Berlin. Perhaps it helped sales.

Besides, more detailed analysis in recent years implies that all the First World War armies had a great deal of difficulty in learning about the technological paradigm that the war offered and in finding ways to beat it. In the end, it seems to have been the British/Dominion Armies that learned how.

The first day of the Somme was – on much of the battlefield – the nadir of British experiences in the First World War. There were 60,000 casualties on one day, including 20,000 dead. However, this never happened again. There was a constant evolution of technique, technology and doctrine and by the latter half of the Somme battle, a new series of “Bite and Hold” attacks was worked out – where limited objectives were attained and preparations were well in hand to greet the inevitable German counter-attacks. There was a growing proficiency and skill in the Allied armies from the first day of the Somme onwards.

These bite and hold attacks characterized the successes of the Canadian Corps until the last 100 days of the war when two years of tactical success finally made the Germans weak enough to turn local gains into operational successes. From August 1918 until the end, the “Lions led by Donkeys” were crunching their way through every German defence they encountered and by the beginning of October, the German front had caved in.

The presence of horse-cavalry in the British and Dominion Armies on the Western Front is widely viewed as an argument for a hide-bound conservatism among British generals and a further argument for a perceived backwardness. Ironically, some of the most innovative and creative of the British generals were cavalry generals. They include Allenby, who went on to crush the Turks in Palestine in 1917-18, and Byng, who established the primacy of the Canadian Corps in 1916/17, and was rewarded with command of 3rd British Army. Haig, who was indeed a cavalry general, also proved to have been exceptionally open to new ideas and new technologies, when he was sure they would work effectively.

To the point about cavalry on the Western Front, Canadians forget that our own cavalry made three successful charges on the Western Front in 1917-18 and that British cavalry were often extremely useful, even on the Somme. However, cavalry had become – even before the war – less used for shock action as they were mounted riflemen who could be quickly rushed into position in some circumstances. It also turned out that cavalry could carry significant firepower in terms of Lewis light machineguns and ammunition panniers, which meant cavalrymen were disproportionately armed to the teeth and harder to dislodge once they occupied a position.

By contrast, it was the tank that was less reliable. At the Battle of Amiens on August 8th, 1918 where ten Allied divisions (including all four Canadian ones) ripped an enormous chunk out of the German army, 580 tanks were in use. However, 70% were out of action by the end of the day and only eight were serviceable (and nowhere near the front line) by November 11th. Cavalry and light armoured cars were of far greater utility in securing the victory.

As for the callousness of senior officers in the British/Dominion armies, the immortal American phrase “That dog won’t hunt” comes to mind. For a start, unlike the Austrians, Italians, Turks, Russians – and very nearly – the Germans, the British army never collapsed. Even the French mutiny of 1917 was about service conditions, not about the war itself. The celebrated Etaples mutiny – an almost singular event for the British – occurred in a brutish training camp where the men were separated from their officers.

While there were differences in terms of leave policy and billeting arrangements behind the lines between officers and men, the British took pains to achieve higher standards for rationing, mail, and medical care for their men. It is also clear that the British ethos of high standards of care by junior officers for their men carried into higher ranks of service. While Douglas Haig seems to have been reserved in his personal conduct towards the rank and file, some recollections of the war by men in the ranks mention one-to-one meetings with general officers, sometimes in the forward trenches at night. Nor do arguments based on class necessarily convey aloofness and reserve; moreover, by the last year of the war, a substantial portion of the British Army’s officers had been raised from the ranks.

The final point is about the motives for the war. In a democratic system, consent is needed for a war to be prosecuted. While any war needs political and popular support on the home front, it particularly needs the willing consent of the men themselves. Again, Austrian-Hungarians, Italians, and Russians voted with their feet at various times, and the German Army was on the edge of collapse at the end (and the German navy did mutiny when ordered back to sea in October 1918). The French grumbled about service conditions and returned to their duty, while the British stayed the entire course. In short, the Tommies and the Anzacs and Canucks consented to see the thing through.

However, nobody stays for long in conditions like those of the Western Front in the service of a lie. The British/Dominion troops believed in what they were doing. They might have been cynical about German atrocity propaganda — slightly less so, perhaps, once some of the long-occupied villages in Eastern France and Belgium were finally liberated in the last weeks of the war. However, they believed they were striving against German militarism and German political ambitions and that they were defending a way of life that was fundamentally decent.

Then they went home, back to peacetime and economies in transition with job shortages, unrest, inflation, an intellectual climate dominated by new ideologies and ultimately the Depression. Twenty years later, the whole struggle had to be done all over again. One can understand why the veterans didn’t argue so strongly about the causes that kept them in the trenches.

Yet, it turns out that the surviving veterans of the First World War were right all along about why they were fighting. The German historian Fritz Fischer made himself very unpopular in Germany by pawing through the records of the Kaiser’s government and publishing his findings in 1967 in Griff Nach der Weltmacht. It seems that elements in the German government, if not necessarily the Kaiser himself, connived at the start of the war and harboured ambitions for an even greater German imperium. Fischer compounded his unpopularity by pointing out that many German foreign policy objectives stayed constant from 1900 to 1945.

So let us give the memories of our First World veterans their real due and no longer allow their accomplishments to be denigrated with unkind and inaccurate myths. Nor should we account the deaths of the ones who stayed in Belgium and France as a tragic waste. They offered their lives in what they thought was an excellent cause and they have subsequently been proven to have been right. We owe them respect, not pity.