Sophie Shrubsol:

Comment: The generals of the First World War were heroes, not fools

Comment: The generals of the First World War were heroes, not fools

By Sophie Shrubsole

It was announced today that the government has allocated £50 million to mark the centenary of the Great War, 1914-1918. We are now presented with the perfect platform to re-engage with the big debates that have surrounded this conflict for the past 50 years.

When the guns fell silent on November 11th 1918, every village in the UK bar just six lost at least one of their men.  In fact nearly 1,000,000 British and Empire servicemen left home never to return.

Despite the loss and devastation to communities up and down the country, it wasn't until the 1960s that questions of guilt and blame became an addition to the intellectual scene.

In 1928, following the sudden death of Field Marshall Douglas Haig, more people took to streets to mourn his passing that had ever been seen previously or indeed since.  The very public mourning as a result of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997 was dwarfed in comparison to those that came out to pay respects to Earl Haig.

It took literature and some key individuals to change history.  As one of my university lecturers once said to me, history does not happen, it is written, and that principle could not be applied more strongly to the case of First World War history.

With the publication of Alan Clark's The Donkeys (1961) and the production of Joan Littlewood's musical Oh! What a Lovely War (1963), a wave of popular history provided the foundation through which all subsequent knowledge of the First World War is filtered – precisely the problem with which we are now faced.  Historians and thespians took the critical words of those men that had a grudge and an agenda to push, namely Lloyd George and Churchill, thus generating the idea that generals were both inept and callous.
But beyond the Blackadder episodes there is a raft of history that is desperate to break into the mainstream.  No one doubts that there were a handful of poor officers at various stages of the command structure who made bad decisions that ultimately cost the lives of hundreds of men.

But as a country, we seem to forget as a matter of course that 1918 brought us victory.  Could this have been possible against the might of Germany's Imperial Army with such incompetent leadership?  Clearly there is another history to expose.

Trench warfare existed as the marksmanship of the British alongside technology and weaponry caused each adversary to dig in and seek protection.  By 1916, almost all the trained and elite men of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had paid the ultimate sacrifice.  Despite its intricate planning and preparation, the first day of the Battle of the Somme was to be the bloodiest day in the British army's history, with close to 20,000 men killed.  This day, as revisionist historians have strived to show, was to be a turning point: the moment in which the BEF transformed itself, from high command to man on the spot, from inexperienced city army to effective fighting machine capable of challenging and defeating the German army.  A combination of factors proved pivotal in the BEF's transformation.

Defective artillery pieces and their ineffectual direction played a huge part in the catastrophe of the first day of the Somme.  More than three million shells were fired in the week's preliminary bombardment, yet as 60,000 men went over the top, they were to find the German wire intact, and their defenders ready to hold their virtually untouched positions.  If the BEF and her empire forces were to progress at all, this was the first lesson to be learned, and the creeping barrage was to go a long way in aiding some of the successes of future battles.  Artillery fire would move towards the enemy, lifting every few hundred yards so that the advancing infantry were protected and a field of fire was clearing a path for the onrushing attackers.

With every day's fighting that passed, officers were encouraged to note the aspects of battle that had been successful, and those aspects that had not worked.  These experiences were shared between units, throughout the ranks and with high command.  Indeed, in mid-July, official war diaries noted that "everyone however junior in rank to be permitted to express his opinion if he has any suggestions to offer as to possible means of improving our methods".

These experiences were to be collected and translated into three official manuals.  In December 1916, Instructions for the Training of Divisions for Offensive Action (SS 135), the Instructions for the Training Platoons for Offensive Action (SS 143), issued on 14 February 1917 and the Instructions for the Training of the British Army in France (SS 144), issued in April 1917.  These became essential reading for officers, who shared this knowledge with their men.  Quite clearly, High Command and every level of command in the British Army were keen to learn and improve for future action.

These documents were to provide a platform for widespread learning.  Instead of being rigid doctrine, they were guidelines for commanders to refer to, providing information that would be suitable for many occasions during battle, but flexible enough for own experience to work alongside.  Whilst undoubtedly it was the soldiers who learned the best methods for battle, it was the corps and divisional commanders who gathered the ideas of those on the ground whilst GHQ translated them into the official documents which were then shared and learned from.

In February 1917, the military unit of a platoon was to undergo a restructure.  The new-look platoon was to have four specialised sections: the rifle, bombing, rifle bombers and Lewis gun sections.  The four sections ideally moved in a diamond formation, always with the rifle section in the lead; the rifle grenade and bombing sections to the side; and the Lewis gun section to the rear from where it could deploy to either flank quickly.  The standard operating procedure was for another platoon to advance in the same formation some 50 to 100 yards behind, but with a platoon HQ leading so the commander could assess where to commit his troops.

The infantry in this formation thus emerged as an essential element in the BEF's weapons system that brought together various arms into a synergistic whole,  and it became a widespread practice to divide the attacking waves into different functions, between 'fighting platoons', 'mopping up platoons', 'support platoons' and 'carrying platoons'.  The British infantry had reinvented fire and movement tactics as it carried out the hundreds of small attacks that made up the battles of the First World War.

These are just a few examples of how officers and men used their experiences of war to transform their ability to fight and win.  The First World War was unlike any conflict that had come before it.  High Command had no similar experience to draw upon, but instead needed to learn on the job and translate this quickly into new tactical awareness.

However, it cannot be forgotten that it was not just the Allied forces that were learning and developing.  With every advance in technology and weaponry, and evolution of tactics, came counter-technology and counter-tactics.  Traditional views of the Great War fail to take account of this.

Whether one stubbornly subscribes to the 'lions led by donkeys' thesis, the obsession with its mantra is holding military history back. Strategy and tactics, operational understanding, the political and economic nature of warfare, its social impacts, and the unimaginable logistical operations are just a few topics to be studied. The scope of interest makes military history so accessible for this very reason.  

Despite the weight of scholarly work that exists, the gulf between popular understanding of the war and many of the current views remains vast.  Now is the time to change this and embrace the next four years.

Sophie Shrubsole is deputy chairman of Parliament Street, one of the UK's most influential think tanks.  Sophie has been studying and touring the battlefields of the Great War for almost a decade.