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VINE VOICEon 26 February 2009
By mid 1916 the British forces in France and Flanders were so large that they had been subdivided into five Armies, each larger than the original BEF that had sailed in August 1914. It curious that the men who led these Armies, and their chiefs of staff, have been rather neglected when it comes to scholarly biographies and analyses. Although several of them wrote autobiographies or memoirs, few have received more than a passing interest. Horne, commander of First Army, had nothing at all about him until quite recently; Byng and Plumer were subjects of single good modern biographies only in the last two decades; Monro and Birdwood get hardly a mention; only Rawlinson and Gough have received significant attention and one suspects that has been more driven by their failures than by their successes.

Rather like "Haig: a reappraisal 80 years on" that I recently reviewed, this is a collection of papers, one covering each General in turn, by leading contemporary historians including Gary Sheffield, Simon Robbins, John Bourne and Peter Simpkins. The various studies examine the background and temperament of the man, his relationships with Haig, his peers, staffs and subordinates.

Some themes will serve to frustrate the "lions led by donkeys" school. These men were experienced soldiers, who rose to their command through demonstration of capability. Their backgrounds and personalities varied greatly, with inevitable consequences for their relationships and actions. Two were sacked (Gough perhaps unfairly in 1918, although there is a case that he should have gone much earlier; Allenby in 1917, sidelined to Palestine where he turned out rather well), one more at least (Plumer) came close to the same fate. Rawlinson's development from a less than wonderful 1915 and a disastrous 1 July 1916 to a capable, flexible, wise, leader in 1918 is covered well: as indeed are all of the stories.

I was intrigued by a surprising weight given to secondary sources in some of the papers, but this may have been due to tight writing timetables or small research budgets. I would not rely on this book as my single source of information about a General, but as a taster and a guide to where to look more deeply, it can not really be faulted. All papers are scrupulous in their citation of sources, as you might expect from professional academic historians.

There is a small collection of photographs, none of which you will not have seen before, and insertion of a few largely irrelevant maps. This book is not about trenches and battle timelines. It is about men and their struggle to overcome the unprecedented challenges of technology, communications and huge organisational scale and in that most stressful and unforgiving period in our history.
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For those who subscribe to the "Haig was an incompetent butcher" opinion, this book will perhaps open minds and bring the realities of Haig's situation into focus.
No doubt Haig had shortcomings. Who of us has not? However this book draws the reader into obvious comparisons with how any CEO would run a large organisation. The permanent dilemma between exercising strong personal control over detail or allowing able and proven subordinates to make and take decisions, was ever present for Haig. Taking the Corporation analogy forward, he had to balance the opinions and plans of his subordinates with the ever present (and changing) demands of an untrusting Chairman of the Board (Lloyd George).
This book allows the reader to follow the tactical plans offered by Haig's generals with the strategic world in which Haig was compelled to live. Demanding more of Rawlinson's plans for the Somme than perhaps tactical objectives suggested appropriate. Pushing Plumer to continue at 3rd Ypres when 20/20 hindsight offered alternatives.
The common thread is that Haig's ability to wage war effectively was conditioned by the destruction and eventual re-creation of the British Army into the magnificent and very large fighting force of 1918 that eventually carried him through to victory. Also the politicians and the technology and tactics, all of which were not in harmony until after March 1918. These essays on Haig's Generals will assist any battle guide or researcher seeking to give colour to the men behind the reputations.

Mike McCarthy
Editor, 'The Battle Guide'
Guild of Battlefield Guides
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 2 January 2010
For decades the generals who commanded the armies of the British Expeditionary Force in the First World War have been subjected to considerable criticism in both the popular and scholarly media. Long derided as "butchers and bunglers", they were typically viewed as unimaginative fools who callously presided over the slaughter of a generation. In recent years, however, these much maligned figures have enjoyed something of a rehabilitation, as a number of historians have argued that the British military leadership was far more innovative in their application of new tactics and technologies to break the stalemate on the Western Front than they have been often credited, and that the army was just beginning to profit from the benefits of this when the war came to an end.

Ian Beckett and Steven Corvi's book can be categorized as part of this rehabilitative effort. A collection of short biographies written by different historians, it offers a reexamination of the nine generals who commanded armies during Haig's tenure as the commander of the BEF. As a collaborative work it bears the idiosyncracies typical of a project, but all of the chapters share a sympathetic attitude towards their subject, with each focusing on a particular action that serves as a case study for their interpretation. For the most part the treatment manages to be both sympathetic yet even-handed, as only occasionally (as in the case of John Lee's chapter on William Birdwood) do they come across as excessively partisan.

Yet despite his presence on nearly every page, one person seems curiously absent - Haig himself. While the focus is properly on the generals under his command, the analysis of their roles and performance invariably touches on their relationship with Haig. Given the reevaluation being undertaken by the authors, the work might have been stronger had there been a separate entry on Haig, or at least a chapter assessing his overall role within the BEF. Without it, the chapters are nine useful threads that need to be tied together in order to properly support the case that the overall assessment of these men has been unfair. It is the major limitation in what is otherwise a useful reassessment of men who have at times been judged unfairly for their efforts to grapple with the changing demands of the new ways of warfare on the Western Front.
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VINE VOICEon 7 February 2016
The general view that the British army in the First World War were lions led by donkeys was quickly adopted in the 1920's and became the standard critique of the generals in control of the troops in the field. The historian J F C Fuller called the GCB customarily awarded to higher commanders the 'Great Cretin Brotherhood'. Clemenceau thought war was too important to be left to the military while Lloyd George's assessment of the military mind meant thinking was regarded as a form of mutiny. John Keegan accused the chateau generals of lacking consciences and being impervious to the millions of lives lost in battle. Nonetheless, Keegan emphasised problems regarding communication and control. The army in 1914 was a small force which lacked command experience in dealing with large numbers. Within in a short space of time it had been sub-divided into five armies. In Germany army staff were the real centre of authority. This was not the case with the British army. 'Moreover, the army was rigidly hierarchical and... suffered from the variety of petty vendettas and clashes of personality perhaps inevitable in a relatively small institution.'

The image of the wartime British army has changed in recent years. It is recognised the army was on a learning curve which led to changes at operational level although it is not clear whether this came from the top or from initiatives by troops on the ground. General Henry Rawlinson was a spectator at the Somme and during the 'Hundred Days' campaign in 1918 but later that year subordinate commanders exercised decentralised responsibility in an aggressive and ruthless manner taking 'advantage of the opportunities for rapid promotion'. This study examines the role and performance of nine generals: Edward Allenby, William Birdwood, Julian Byng, Hubert Gough, Henry Horne, Charles Monro, Herbert Plumer, Henry Rawlinson and Horace Smith-Dorrien. Not being a specialist in the area this reviewer knew only three of them – Allenby, Birdwood and Horne.
They have been amongst the 'forgotten men of the twentieth century'.

'In war some men rise to the challenge of command, some are remiss in their duties and others become scapegoats for the calamities of war'. Different generals had different styles depending on their understanding of the nature of command and finding a balance between control and guidance. The extremities provide subordinates with a free hand or interfere with their decisions. This was caused by a lack of a well defined doctrine of command or of the functions of the troops. Some such as Allenby. Monro and Byng were loyal subordinates following Haig's directions even when they disagreed with his decisions. Too few generals were prepared to stand up and contradict their command superiors. Those superiors had no compunction in removing anyone they either disliked or could blame for their own failures. The authors of each essay have examined in their own way each individual's personality, command experience, relationship with Haig and his own subordinates and how they adapted to the modern form of warfare experienced in the War itself. Their approach includes a case study of significant actions for each individual covering La Cateau (Smith-Dorrien), Fromellese (Monro), the Somme (Rawlinson, the Ancre (Gough), Arras (Allenby) Passchendale (Plumer) Cambrai (Byng) the Hundred Days (Birdwood) and the crossing of the Canal du Nord (Horne).

Allenby served on the Western Front for two years with losses incurred amongst many of his troops, including the Battle of the Somme by which time he had been appointed to lead the Third Army. In 1917 he launched the Battle of Arras which faltered against the in-depth German defence system and descended into an attritional conflict. Allenby (like Haig) was incredibly shy and compensated by bullying his subordinates although he never bore malice towards those who disagreed with him. He did not interfere with their interpretation of his orders. Haig interfered with Allenby's preparation and execution for the Battle of Arras, over-ruling Allenby's planned surprise two day bombardment in favour of a five-day approach. Allenby was made a scapegoat for the subsequent failure, removed from command and later sent to Palestine where his success in defeating the
Arabs and capturing Jerusalem provided him with a life-long reputation as a successful soldier. His successor was Byng 'an unassuming, personable and compassionate individual whose integrity outweighed his ambition.' Unlike Allenby he was concerned about the death of so many of those under his command. Byng was open to the ideas of subordinates and had an aversion to tactics imposed from above. 'On balance his contributions as a manager of tactical innovations outweighed his shortcomings' and he made a 'significant contribution to the army's victory on the Western Front.

William Birdwood was in charge of the Anzac forces at Gallipoli and was opposed to the order to withdraw. He was popular amongst the ranks whose welfare he always had in mind. Only Plumer could rival the personal affection in which he was held by the troops who served under him.' In 1918 he took control of the Fifth Army on the Western Front pursuing the enemy with mobile units, keeping pressure on the Germans while the other armies carried out the main offensive. Haig never really liked him and apparently held him back as he did with anyone he felt was a threat to his role as head of the army. Hubert Gough was made a scapegoat for the failures of the Fifth army and dismissed. The authors of the essay about him conclude 'he was not a success in the period of trench warfare' who Haig had promoted beyond his level of competence.

What is clear from the book is that the army in 1918 was an entirely different force from that which existed in 1914. The war had been a steep learning curve in the transition from traditional fighting with relatively small forces to modern warfare involving large numbers. Sadly the structure of the army was initially too rigid to permit rapid response resulting in four years rather than four months of war. What is missing from the book is the influence of the class system. Most generals were educated at public schools and believed in their right to command. The photographs which are reproduced show, with the exception of Gough, the stiff upper lip with which the British ruling class conquered and subsequently lost an empire. Interesting but not riveting. Three stars.
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on 19 January 2013
Actually this is a very interesting book which I haven't yet read. However, it contains a defamatory essay about my grandfather so I'm not enamoured with the book as a whole. But I'm going to read it for precisely that reason.
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on 27 August 2015
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