Why We British Must Stop Denigrating Our Generals; for Decades It Has Been Fashionable to Denounce the Great War's Commanders as Unfeeling Blimps Who Sent Countless Soldiers to Their Deaths. but Now, on the Eve of the 80th Day of Remembrance, a Top Historian Argues This View Is Utterly Misguided

Daily Mail (London), November 7, 1998 | Go to article overview

Why We British Must Stop Denigrating Our Generals; for Decades It Has Been Fashionable to Denounce the Great War's Commanders as Unfeeling Blimps Who Sent Countless Soldiers to Their Deaths. but Now, on the Eve of the 80th Day of Remembrance, a Top Historian Argues This View Is Utterly Misguided


Byline: JOHN KEEGAN

THIS REMEMBRANCE Sunday marks the 80th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I. Eighty years is more than most people's span of life. The urge to remember seems, nevertheless, to grow stronger rather than weaker with time.

At the Commonwealth War Graves Commission's cemeteries in France and Belgium, great-grandchildren are leaving little wreaths and notes to recall the deaths of men they never knew. At home the few survivors of the Great War are objects of veneration.

All are in their very late 90s, some centenarians. Their survival, now into very old age, brings a sense of awe, even of mystery. To the British people, they have become symbols of our nation's greatest tragedy.

While they last, and their numbers shrink week by week, they receive the respect we feel is owed to all who fought in the least explicable of wars.

One group of Great War warriors escapes veneration: the generals who directed operations.

None survives. Hubert Gough, last of the leading British commanders, died in 1963, having long outlived the rest.

Ian Hamilton, who was already over 60 when he oversaw the Gallipoli landing of 1915, lived until 1947. Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, died in 1928.

HAIG was lucky, going to his grave still the national hero the victory of 1918 had made him, with an earldom, a large capital grant and the estate of Bemer-syde as marks of the nation's esteem.

That year the dam of silence broke and the disillusioned of the Great War, Edmund Blunden and Robert Graves first among them, began to publish their denunciations of the men who had presided at the slaughter. Siegfried Sassoon had already set the tone: 'Good morning; good morning!' the general said When we met him last week on our way to the line.

Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of 'em dead, And we're cursing his staff for incompetent swine.

'He's a cheery old card,' grunted Harry to Jack As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack But he did for them both with his plan of attack.

The belief that the generals were responsible for the holocaust quickly took root and has spread. There is a large literature of condemnation, including the scripts of plays - Oh What A Lovely War! - and films.

Scarcely a word is written from the other side. A single biography of Haig tried to reverse the balance but its author attracted only vilification.

The British seem determined to see the Great War generals as unfeeling and incompetent - hard-faced, overfed men who, from the safety of their chateau headquarters, sent the Chums and Pals to their deaths in hundreds of thousands.

It is a peculiarly British mindset.

Other nations do not condemn as we do. 'Black Jack' Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, remains a respected figure in the United States.

Ferdinand Foch, made a Marshal of France for his role as Supreme Allied Commander, is a great man to the French. The Germans elected Paul von Hindenburg to be president of the Weimar Republic, only seven years after he had advised the Kaiser to accept defeat.

In Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, who defended Gallipoli and founded the post-war republic, is the nation's dominating personality.

All of this seems strange, since the French and Germans suffered higher casualties than the British - 1.3 million French dead and 2 million German to the Empire's 1 million. The Turks, who kept no records, may have suffered proportionately. All seem to prefer forgetting to remembering.

Why do the British still pick at the wound and why do they blame the generals for inflicting it? It may be because so many of those who died were volunteers.

Britain in 1914, unlike the continental states, had no conscript army. Its tiny regular force was quickly overwhelmed in the battles of Mons, the Marne, the Aisne and the first Ypres campaign. …

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Why We British Must Stop Denigrating Our Generals; for Decades It Has Been Fashionable to Denounce the Great War's Commanders as Unfeeling Blimps Who Sent Countless Soldiers to Their Deaths. but Now, on the Eve of the 80th Day of Remembrance, a Top Historian Argues This View Is Utterly Misguided
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