Lions Led by Donkeys
The incompetence and stubbornness of the Generals of The First World War
The First World War is synonymous with mechanised slaughter on an industrial scale. Born out of this was the adage of ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ with the lions representing the British soldiers and the donkeys being the British Generals. The context behind it was that the incompetence of the Generals had resulted in the death and injury of thousands of British soldiers.
There is plenty of evidence for the expression ringing true. The tactic of shelling enemy lines and then sending thousands of soldiers over the top and into relentless artillery and machine gun fire was repeated constantly with little success. The stubbornness of the British leadership to change tactics and continue to waste soldiers eventually had a horrible impact on morale, but the often out of touch leadership were relentless in their methods.
Arguably the British leader most associated with the ‘Led by Donkeys’ was Field Marshal Douglas Hague. He has gone down in history as a figure responsible for the futile massacre of so many. Nicknamed ‘Butcher Hague’ because of the 2 million casualties under his command, he has been heavily criticised for his tactics.
Haig was part of the British High Command during two of the most costly battles of the war, at the Somme in 1916 and Passchendaele in 1917. The high casualties at both of these made sure that, in the eyes of much of the British public, Haig had British and Commonwealth blood on his hands.
The tactics used during the First World War were outdated even in 1914. They were taken from the Big Book of British Colonisation, when the ‘enemies’ of Britain were armed with little more than spears and swords. Charging across open land might have worked in Africa or India, but in Northern France against heavy German machine guns, it was certain death for soldiers sent over the top.
To some extent, it isn’t the fault of Haig and other Generals of this era that their tactics were so costly. It is the era itself which is to blame. They had grown into a world in which Britain owned one quarter of the planet. Overconfidence was inherited into this generation as well as an arrogance to colonise wherever suited them.
This attitude followed them into the trenches of the First World War. Only on this occasion, Britain wasn’t the only major power.
The Generals of the First World War were out of their depth. Tasked with breaking down a stalemate in the bloodiest conflict in history was a step too far for military leaders not accustomed to defeat. Yet despite all this, they weren’t the ones to suffer.
Whilst they were sat frustrated at the lack of progress on maps of the battlefield from HQ buildings often miles behind the lines, thousands of young men were being cut to pieces and blown apart in futile attacks. The families of these men would never see their loved ones again, all because they were seen as expendable.
Despite the incompetence of the leaders, ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ is most significant in remembering the ‘Lions’, or the frontline soldiers. Fighting and living in holes in the ground before being sent into certain death took a level of courage which many of the Generals would never have reached.
When we say ‘Lest we forget’ we do so whilst thinking of the soldiers who suffered at the hands of incompetent leadership.