WWI generals were NOT donkeys leading lions, NICK LLOYD argues

Britain’s WWI generals were NOT donkeys leading lions: Historian NICK LLOYD argues condemned Field Marshall Douglas Haig deserves more sympathy… as we remember the millions of fallen on Armistice Day

  • Field Marshall Douglas Haig was condemned as the ‘boy butcher’ and held responsible for huge death toll
  • Prime Minister David Lloyd George even described him as being ‘brilliant to the top of his army boots’
  • But Nick Lloyd argues for MailOnline as Britain marks Armistice Day today that Haig deserves more sympathy

He is remembered as the ‘donkey’ who led millions of heroic ‘lions’ to their deaths in seas of mud on the Western Front. 

Britain’s Field Marshall Douglas Haig was condemned in his lifetime as the ‘boy butcher’ and was held responsible for the horrendous casualties in the First World War. 

The then Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, even cuttingly described him as being ‘brilliant to the top of his army boots’. 

But historian Nick Lloyd, whose recent book The Western Front – A History of the First World War has been praised by critics, argues in a powerful piece for MailOnline as Britain marks Armistice Day today that Haig deserves more sympathy.

He says that nothing could have prepared the experienced general for the ‘scale and intensity’ of the fighting on the Western Front, which – due to unprecedented advances in technology – was a ‘theatre of war’ which produced ‘industrial’ levels of casualties.    

In Britain, the First World War remains the ‘Great War’. 

The cemeteries that lie across the Western Front, that 350-mile scar that runs between the North Sea and the Swiss border, have become eternal symbols of horror and slaughter. 

As King George V asked when he visited Flanders in 1922, could there be ‘more potent advocates of peace upon earth through the years to come than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war’?

The shadow of the Great War still falls heavily across Armistice Day, when we remember the moment the guns fell silent at 11am on November 11, 1918. 

When we think of the war, we associate it with trenches and barbed wire, poetry and poppies, and more often than not, with ‘lions and donkeys’. 

In Britain, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (1915-18), remains the focus of much popular discontent. 


He is remembered as the ‘donkey’ who led millions of heroic ‘lions’ to their deaths in seas of mud on the Western Front. Britain’s Field Marshall Douglas Haig was condemned in his lifetime as the ‘boy butcher’ and was held responsible for the horrendous casualties in the First World War. But historian NICK LLOYD, whose recent book The Western Front has been praised by critics, argues in a piece for MailOnline as Britain marks Armistice Day today that Haig deserves more sympathy

Like almost all his contemporaries, nothing had prepared Haig for the scale and intensity of the fighting on the Western Front where three (and later four) great powers met. Pictured: Troops ‘going over the top’ at the Somme in 1916

He was the ‘boy butcher’ and the chief ‘donkey’ who supposedly condemned millions of men to their deaths; ‘brilliant to the top of his army boots’ being the verdict of the wartime Prime Minister, David Lloyd George.

This popular condemnation of Haig is certainly understandable. 

It helps to explain the terrible casualties and the awful offensives that went on and on, allowing us to apportion blame and assign culpability. 

Yet this process misses out so much of the context of the war and the nature of military operations between 1914-18. 

Like almost all his contemporaries, nothing had prepared Haig for the scale and intensity of the fighting on the Western Front where three (and later four) great powers met. 

It was a theatre of war that sucked in millions of men and produced industrial levels of casualties. It also posed an almost uniquely difficult challenge for commanders.

In his final despatch, written in 1919, Haig argued that all the battles of the war should be ‘viewed as forming part of one great and continuous engagement’ and had the British been more prepared for war in 1914, then perhaps the end would have come sooner. 

It was a theatre of war that sucked in millions of men and produced industrial levels of casualties. It also posed an almost uniquely difficult challenge for commanders. Above: Artillery guns in action on the Somme in 1916

The problem that all commanders faced was how to utilise the weapons and manpower at their disposal to achieve their objectives: to take ground and defeat the enemy. Pictured: 

Moreover, they had no choice but to support their ally, France, by attacking on the Western Front before they were ready. 

The ‘military situation compelled us, particularly during the first portion of the war, to make great efforts before we had developed our full strength in the field or properly equipped and trained our armies’, Haig wrote. 

These efforts may have been expensive in men, but they could not be avoided. 

‘The only alternative was to do nothing and see our French Allies overwhelmed by the enemy’s superior numbers.’

The problem that all commanders faced was how to utilise the weapons and manpower at their disposal to achieve their objectives: to take ground and defeat the enemy. 

But in the first half of the war, at least until 1917, most Allied offensives struggled to liberate more than a few kilometres of territory (and even then with an exorbitant cost in blood). 

The combination of firepower – rifles, machine-guns and quick-firing artillery – and defensive works – trenches, barbed wire and concrete dug-outs – meant that attacks were usually stopped in no-man’s-land or were only able to achieve relatively narrow penetrations. 

HM King George V, on Wytschaete Ridge in Belgium on 4 July 1917 during a tour of the Western Front. When he visited Flanders in 1922, he asked if there could be ‘more potent advocates of peace upon earth through the years to come than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war’

Photograph of gas-masked men of the British Machine Gun Corps with a Vickers machine gun during the first battle of the Somme, 1916

Even if gains were made the lack of safe and reliable communication between the forward troops and the headquarters in the rear made it almost impossible to move reserves and reinforcements to where they were needed.

This great problem sparked off a revolution in warfare that is only now being fully appreciated by historians. 

Haig and other generals could issue orders and direct their armies, but success rested upon a combination of new tactics and weaponry that would take years to mature. 

The answer, at least in the early days, was to mass more and more manpower and to stockpile as many artillery shells as possible to punch a hole in the enemy defences. 

This was done with impressive speed. At Neuve Chapelle in March 1915, the British fired over 60,000 shells – more than had been used in the entire South African War (1899-1902) – in just 35-minutes. 

The British developed the first tanks, which were first deployed on the Somme in September 1916, and also relied extensively upon the Royal Flying Corps to map the battlefield from the air and to plot the fall of shell, helping to improve accuracy. Above: A tank on the Somme in 1916

The combination of firepower – rifles, machine-guns and quick-firing artillery – and defensive works – trenches, barbed wire and concrete dug-outs – meant that attacks were usually stopped in no-man’s-land or were only able to achieve relatively narrow penetrations. Above: French anti-aircraft guns at teh Somme

British artillerymen loading a gun at the Somme in 1916 with a shell on which the message ‘A busting time this Christmas’ has been painted

By the Somme in the summer of 1916, over a million shells were fired in a seven-day preliminary bombardment, but it was not until 1918 that munitions were available in almost unlimited quantities (with the British regularly firing a million shells per day in support of attacks by the last year of the war).

The reliance upon artillery was only the first stage in a new method of combined arms that would come to fruition in the final phase of the conflict. 

The British developed the first tanks, which were first deployed on the Somme in September 1916, and also relied extensively upon the Royal Flying Corps to map the battlefield from the air and to plot the fall of shell, helping to improve accuracy.  

A photograph of British soldiers eating their rations, taken by an unknown photographer in France in around 1915

The problem that all commanders faced was how to utilise the weapons and manpower at their disposal to achieve their objectives: to take ground and defeat the enemy. Above seized German artillery weapons on the Somme in 1916

Men of the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers fixing bayonets before their assault on Beaumont-Hamel, the Somme, Picardy, northern France. 1st July 191

The French were also known for their innovation, and they led the way in issuing their men with steel helmets and experimenting with infiltration tactics, which were debuted at the Second Battle of Artois in May 1915. 

This was the true story of the Western Front – a constant process of transformation that changed history and ushered in the modern style of fighting.

Haig made mistakes. He interfered when he did not need to and sometimes left subordinates to flounder when he should have provided more guidance. 

He continued to see the war in terms of breakthrough and manoeuvre when most of his contemporaries increasingly emphasized the importance of firepower and limited attacks. 

But these judgements must be made within the context of the time. Haig, for all his faults, was a strong and reliable figure who was able to work, and continue to work, under enormous pressure – to carry on when others would have given up. 

The generals on the Western Front were not automatons immune from the cost of battle. 

Many were killed or became seriously wounded. Many more lost sons or brothers in battles that they themselves directed. 


Nick Lloyd is Professor of Modern Warfare at King’s College London, based at the Defence Academy UK in Shrivenham, Wiltshire. His recent book, The Western Front: A History of the First World War, is published by Penguin 

Although Haig was fortunate not to suffer these personal tragedies, he lost his trusted Chief of Staff, Johnnie Gough, to sniper fire in 1915.

When we fall silent on Armistice Day, we should remember the First World War not in the stereotypical scenes from Blackadder Goes Forth or Oh! What a Lovely War. 

We should remember it in all its messy complexity and reflect upon the enormous changes that it ushered in and the great challenges that it posed. 

We can see this most clearly on the Western Front. The story of what happened in France and Belgium between 1914-18 is not one of futility or endless, meaningless slaughter. 

On the contrary, for the Allies it was an astonishing triumph of innovation and courage, and it deserves better recognition.

Nick Lloyd is Professor of Modern Warfare at King’s College London, based at the Defence Academy UK in Shrivenham, Wiltshire. 

He is the author of The Western Front: A History of the First World War (Penguin, 2021).

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