Goodbye to the “Donkeys” — How the First World War British Army has been Rehabilitated since 1970

A lot of people coming to the professional literature of the Great War from popular histories like G.J. Meyer’s A World Undone are often surprised to discover that the narrative of “lions led by donkeys,” in which incompetent traditionalist generals led valiant men to pointless deaths against German machine guns, has been debunked for decades. In fact, the reality was that this narrative was never true to begin with.

The problem began with a man named Basil Liddell Hart (1895–1970). Liddell Hart was a British officer who took part in the disastrous first day of the Somme. After being invalidated off the line due to gas exposure, he became one of the British army’s key players in developing training, and, after the war, in the development of new doctrine (up to the mid-1930s, in fact, he probably had a hand in every single field manual update the British army issued). This meant that when he turned his hand to writing history in the 1920s, it didn’t take long for him to become an authoritative giant in the field.

Unfortunately, Liddell Hart was a man who could never admit that he had been wrong, and throughout the 1920s had come to believe that he had figured out the key to how the Western Front deadlock should have been broken. At the same time, he was having a slow falling out with the War Office over the role of infantry in future wars — he thought it was obsolete and should be replaced with tanks. This came to a head in the mid-1920s, when he decided that the army leadership were a bunch of traditionalist idiots, and extended that to the leadership during the Great War as well. He espoused this view in his 1930 book The Real War 1914–1918, which he framed as an expose of incompetent military leadership. By the 1950s, he had a stranglehold on First World War scholarship, and would go as far as to try to block the publication of any book he disagreed with (and often succeeded).

The result was that by the 1960s, in large part thanks to Liddell Hart, the well of English-language scholarship of the war was poisoned to the point that you could say just about anything negative about the British army on the Western Front and have it taken at face value, no matter how outlandish it might be. Much of what was understood about the Western Front was heavily mythologized, with Alan Clark’s 1961 book The Donkeys giving a proper name to the myth.

(Take, for example, the first day of the Somme. The idea that along the entire line the wire had not been cut, and men were instructed to march slowly across no-man’s land, only to be cut down en masse by German machine guns is little more than myth. The reality was that while the wire had not been cut in a couple of places, and in those places the attack did not get across no-man’s land, in most cases the wire was cut, the German defences had been incapacitated, and the initial objectives were taken. The problem was that the British had no effective counter-battery fire, and the German artillery created a curtain of fire across no-man’s land, cutting off the British attack, and then whittled them down through counter attacks and artillery fire. It was still a disaster, but a lot of the units in question crept into no-man’s land while the initial barrage was still in progress, got as close to the German lines as they could, and hopped into the German trenches as soon as the barrage lifted. Both Peter Hart and William Philpott have written books on this battle.)

However, in the 1960s some scholars started to push back, and debunk the “lions led by donkeys” narrative that had taken hold. This started with John Terraine’s Douglas Haig: The Educated Soldier in 1963, which began the slow process of rehabilitating Haig’s by then badly sullied reputation. This was an uphill struggle until Basil Liddell Hart died in 1970, loosening his stranglehold, and a general re-assessment of the war on the Western Front began, with Terraine leading the charge.

In the 1970s-1990s, this reassessment continued in professional circles, with the “donkeys” narrative slowly giving way to a new understanding called “the learning curve” — that the imbalance between defensive and offensive technology towards the defense had created a situation where a breakthrough was a physical impossibility for the first three years of the war, and much of the activities of all three of the main armies on the Western Front and their leaders — who were generally intelligent and professional military officers — amounted to developing new offensive technology and tactics and learning how to use them to try to break the deadlock. An additional issue that began to be properly recognized was the fact that the BEF had lost most of its experienced personnel by the end of 1914, and the new continental-sized army (the first of this size Britain had ever raised) was therefore having to be trained from scratch (and it takes around 18 months or so to properly train a soldier).

If there was a second watershed, it would probably have been in the mid-1990s. Part of this was the publication in 1994 of a very influential book titled Battle Tactics of the Western Front: The British Army’s Art of Attack, 1916–18, by Paddy Griffith, which argued that not only did the British army know what it was doing by 1917, but that by that time it was consistently ahead of the German army when it came to battlefield tactics. Another was a massive, game-changing discovery in the wake of the fall of the Berlin wall.

In a nutshell, anybody studying the Western Front had to work at a massive disadvantage — most of the German picture was missing. The reason was simple: the German archives in Berlin had been destroyed during the Second World War by strategic bombing. So, anybody studying the war had to rely on the German official history (which didn’t start getting translated into English until the late 2000s) and fragmentary archival records. It was so bad that anybody wanting to look at the German war planning didn’t even get to read the Schlieffen Plan memo until the 1950s (which is when German historian Gerhard Ritter discovered a copy and published it in his book Schlieffen Plan: Critique of a Myth) — and anything else was little more than guesswork.

However, it turned out that a number of records had been moved from the archives before it was bombed and removed from East Germany by the Soviets, and returned to Germany after reunification in the mid- to late-1990s. This was a major find, and all of a sudden the German side of the war opened up in a way that was akin to a revelation (to the point that we now have a reasonable understanding of German war planning from 1904–1914 that just did not exist 20 years ago).

(For an example of how big a difference this makes, consider the battle of Passchendaele. Prior to the recovery of these archives, most histories of the battle concentrated on the British side, which was very much mud and suffering, with the German army seen to have been weathering it quite well. Once the German side of the battle was properly considered, it became a British victory — the attrition on the German army was equivalent to, if not worse than, Verdun, and it broke the spirit of much of the German army, helping to push them into a desperate attempt at a last-ditch offensive in early 1918, and arguably ending the war a year earlier than anybody expected. See Nick Lloyd’s book on the battle for more details.)

In 2001 British historian Hew Strachan published what would prove to be a standard reference on the war and a major synthesis of the research thus far, The First World War: Volume I: To Arms. In the same year, Gary Sheffield published Forgotten victory: The First World War: Myths and Realities, which was a first major attempt to bring the current scholarly understanding into popular history. In 2003 he was joined by Gordon Corrigan with his book Mud, Blood and Poppycock, which attempted to do the same thing, but focused on the British army.

On the scholarly side, a number of things were happening. Terence Zuber started a major controversy (that is still ongoing) about whether there even was a Schlieffen Plan (as opposed to a myth created by German generals post-war to excuse their poor performance at the Marne) with the publication of his 2002 book Inventing the Schlieffen Plan: German War Planning 1871–1914. In 2009, Holger Herwig published his book The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle That Changed the World, which was based on his research in the German archives and presented the opening of the war from the German point of view. And, between Terence Zuber and Peter Hart, there has been a reassessment going on since 2010 of the British Expeditionary Force’s performance in the opening weeks of the war, with both suggesting that it did not perform nearly as well as the national myth and official history would suggest.

As lengthy as this is, this is, at best, a cursory summary. A lot has happened, particularly in the last twenty years. We have seen a major re-evaluation and ongoing discussion of the causes of the war, study of the French army is undergoing a revival in English-language scholarship, and new attention has been brought to bear on the development of military doctrine in the decade before the war.

The main question now is just how much longer it will take for the popular history of the Western Front to catch up to professional scholarship.

(Those who would like to read more of the better books out there can check out my Great War reading list on Amazon.com, based on books in my personal reference library.)

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