British generals field Marshall Douglas Haig

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How have the actions of First World War Generals been interpreted?

Background Information

Field Marshall Douglas Haig

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    Douglas Haig – Image taken from

    orn into an upper class family in 1861, he joined the army and became a successful cavalry officer.

  • Believed that the cavalry should have been used more widely during the war.

  • In December 1915, he became Commander in Chief of the British Army on the Western Front.

  • He never once visited the front but was always well briefed by the officers of his staff.

  • He and his wife were personal friends of King George V.

  • He believed that the war could only be won on the Western Front.

  • Some came to refer to him as the ‘butcher of the Somme’ after the British Army suffered huge casualties during the Battle of the Somme in 1916

  • At the end of the Battle of the Somme, he was promoted to Field Marshall.

  • After the Somme he led another assault on German lines at Passchendaele in 1917. Once again thousands died for little gain. People became more critical of the Generals.

  • In 1918 Haig managed to stop the last German attack of the war and lead the Allied army to victory.

  • He was created a Lord after the war.

  • He played an important part in the setting up of the British Royal Legion which raises money for former soldiers

Herbert Plumer, 1st Viscount Plumer

  • Herbert Plumer was born in 1857 and was educated at Eton and Sandhurst.

  • Plumer was an Infantry officer who saw action in the Sudan and the Boer War.

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    Herbert Plumer – Image taken from

    s an infantry man it could be argued that he understood somewhat better what could reasonably be expected of his troops bearing in mind the terrain, the weather conditions and morale.

  • Plumer was popular among his men who nicknamed him ‘Old Plum and Apple’ or ‘Daddy Plumer.’

  • He was a meticulous planner, who would often express the plans of his superiors as being too ambitious

  • He commanded the 2nd Army in the Ypres Salient between 1915 and 1917.

  • Once given the command of the Second Army, he withdrew what he could in terms of men and equipment from the Salient as such and based himself and his men in and around the immediate vicinity of Ypres. However, by pulling back he had left the elevated Messines Ridge for the Germans and this ridge gave them a major advantage over Plumer.

  • Plumer was the principal planner behind the highly successful attack on Messines Ridge in June 1917.


Henry Rawlinson – Image taken from

ir Henry Rawlinson

  • Sir Henry Rawlinson, the son of a diplomat, was born in 1864.

  • He joined the army in 1884 and served in India, Burma, Sudan and the Boer War.

  • In 1916, he was appointed Lieutenant General of the Fourth Army, and planned the Battle of the Somme.

  • Rawlinson wanted a limited infantry offensive at the Somme, but Haig wanted an all-out offensive. This led to conflict amongst the two men.

The critics of the British Generals

  • Post-war strategist and historian Major-General John Frederick Charles Fuller, and Liddell Hart, were critical of tactics used and espoused views on the use of mechanised forces.

  • Siegfried Sassoon’s poem ‘The General’ made a long lasting impression.

  • During the 1960s the play and film of ‘Oh! What a lovely war’ reinforced an image of failing generals.

  • Alan Clark’s book The Donkeys from 1961

  • , comments on the political manoeuvring of the Generals and the failings of 1915.

  • John Laffin’s book British Butchers and Bunglers of the First World War (1988).

  • BBC’s Blackadder Goes Forth, Stephen Fry plays General Melchett, a bumbling ‘Chateau General.’

  • The wartime Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, was extremely critical of General Haig in his War Memoirs, (1928). 

The supporters of the Generals
Some modern writers such as John Terraine, Paddy Griffith, Peter Simkins claim:

  • That improvements in the British army made by the Generals have been overlooked

  • The British army in the beginning was small and colonial

  • Germany’s army was over 30 times bigger than the British army.

  • Britain had to fight against the strongest army in the world.

  • Haig allowed his generals on the ground to make decisions.

  • British leadership grew in strength and fighting ability, an example of this being their ability to take over from the French after Verdun as Germany’s deadliest enemy.

  • The allies knew they couldn’t remain defensive forever as it was politically unsound and it would allow the German troops to transfer to the eastern front and take Russia out of the war.

Gary Sheffield military historian thinks the battle of the Battle of the Somme turned the British troops into a ‘hard-bitten and effective force’

Erich von Falkenhayn,

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    Von Falkenhayn – Image taken from

    alkenhayn was German Chief of Staff from 1914 to 1916.

  • He planned the German attack on the fortress system around Verdun in 1916.

  • Verdun was to be a battle of attrition where Falkenhayn believed France would be ‘bled white.’ He had calculated that the French would not give up Verdun as beyond it lay the plains of Champagne and Paris.

  • The Battle of Verdun led to pressure on the British to attack elsewhere on the Western Front, and ultimately led to the battle of the Somme.

  • The battle led to 500 000 French and 400 000 German casualties.

  • Germany didn’t launch any more offensives on the Western Front until 1918.

  • General Falkenhayn was replaced with Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff.

Marshal Joseph Joffre

Joseph Joffre – Image taken from

  • Joffre was born in 1852, and first saw military action during the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.

  • He was appointed Chief of the French General Staff in 1911.

  • He was responsible for Plan XVII, which saw the attempted invasion of Germany in 1914 and which failed to take in to account the likelihood of a German invasion of France through Belgium. 

  • He did finally realise the threat to Paris and organised defences at the First Battle of the Marne, after which he was declared the saviour of France.

  • Joffre was removed from his position in 1916 after German successes at Verdun. He was replaced by Robert Nivelle. He was made Marshal of France on the same day.

Marshal Philippe Pétain

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    Philip Petain – Image taken from

    étain was born in 1856 into a farming family.

  • He joined the French army in 1876.

  • Pétain rose to prominence in 1916 when he was ordered to stop the massive German assault on the fortress city of Verdun.

  • In 1917 he replaced General Robert Nivelle as commander-in-chief of the French army.

  • Pétain restored discipline after a series of mutinies by explaining his intentions to the soldiers personally and improving their living conditions.

  • In November 1918, he was made a marshal of France.

Grand Duke Nikolai

  • Grand Duke Nikolai (1856-1929) was Commander in Chief of the Russian army during the first year of the First World War.

  • The Grand Duke was the uncle of Tsar Nicholas.

  • He was appointed to command of the army with the onset of war in August 1914 - the Tsar having been persuaded to abandon the idea of leading his forces into battle.

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    Grand Duke Nikolai – Image taken from

    he Grand Duke had little control over Russian forces due to the army's appalling system of communications. 

  • There were early successes in East Prussia but they were short-lived; the combined force of Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff defeated Russian forces at Tannenberg (where army commander Samsonov committed suicide rather than face the Tsar in defeat).

  • Under his command Russian forces also did poorly against Austro-Hungarian forces.

  • By May 1915 Russian forces were pushed out of Poland, suffering huge casualties.

  • The Grand Duke was removed from his role and replaced by the Tsar himself.

Field Marshal Luigi Cadorna

  • Luigi Cadorna (1850–1928) was the Chief of Staff of the Italian army.

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    Luigi Cadorna – Image taken from

    hen Italy entered the war in May 1915 on the side of the Entente, the Italian army was made up of 875,000 men, but only 120 modern artillery pieces.

  • In 1915 Cadorna ordered four offensives against the Austro-Hungarians at the Isonzo River. All four attacks failed, and resulted in some 250,000 Italian casualties with little gained.

  • Between 1915 and 1917 there were eleven battles on the Isonzo and the Italians lost all of them.

  • During the war he fired 217 officers; during the Battle of Caporetto he ordered the execution of officers whose units retreated.

  • About 750 men in the Italian army were executed, the highest number of any army in the war.

  • He was replaced in 1917, after a combined Austro-Hungarian/German army struck across the Isonzo River driving the Italians backs and capturing 275,000 soldiers.

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