The First World War is often remembered as a futile waste of life. A pointless slugging match that saw uncaring commanders send thousands of young men to their untimely deaths - lions led by donkeys. In Britain in particular, it’s the mud-soaked trenches of Passchendaele which capture public imagination. While Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig is remembered as the butcher of the Somme. But were British soldiers really lions led by donkeys?

Modern historians are challenging this idea and looking anew at Haig and his commanders to produce are more nuanced view of their command and generalship in the First World War.

Where does the myth come from?

The First World War is often remembered as a futile waste of life. A pointless slugging match that saw uncaring commanders send thousands of young men to their untimely deaths. Lions led by donkeys. In Britain in particular it's the mud soaked trenches of Passchendale which capture public imagination, while Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig is remembered as 'the butcher of the Somme'. But were British soldiers really lions led by donkeys? Or are we looking at the First World War in the wrong way? Well to find out we first need to understand where this idea comes from.

Alan Wakefield, Head of First World War, IWM: So the idea of lions led by donkeys is really popular right up until today. But up until 1928 when he died, Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig was held in high regard across Britain and the empire. But after his death his reputation started to go downhill. Firstly in the 1930s he was attacked in Lloyd George's war memoir. Lloyd George was a great adversary of of Haig during the First World War. He was joined in that attack on Haig by Basil Liddell Hart the populist military strategist who wrote in newspapers and books. And then after the Second World War there were growing social movements that attacked the establishment and we have the play and film Oh! What a Lovely War which castigates the Western Front tactics in general. And then after the 1960s the lions led by donkeys idea comes into popular culture and in 1989 we have Blackadder Goes Forth. Fantastic comedy, but not great First World War history. But today, historians are challenging this idea of lions led by donkeys and looking anew at Haig and his commanders to produce a more nuanced view of of their command and generalship in the First World War.

There is no disputing that the First World War was a bloodbath of epic proportions. Over 16 million people lost their lives in a total war unlike any that had come before it. But the roots of those losses go way back before the conflict had even begun.

Alan Wakefield: The armies that went to war in 1914 were trained to fight a totally different war. An old-fashioned style classical war of maneuver, infantry assaults, cavalry charges, direct firing artillery. This is all pretty old-school stuff. In the lead up to the First World War we've had the Boer War at the turn of the 20th century and then the Russo-Japanese war in 1904/05. Various commanders took different lessons from those wars. Most armies took the idea tha,t as long as you had enough firepower support and your infantry had good enough morale, you could still put in a successful infantry assault. But we know now that they drew the wrong lessons and after 1914 that was to have serious, tragic consequences for the armies of Europe.

When the First World War arrived in 1914, new weapons like modern magazine fed rifles, machine guns, and artillery ran up against tactics from a century before. Unprepared generals on all sides made catastrophic errors in an environment they had not trained for. In the east an entire Russian army was outmaneuvered and destroyed at the Battle of Tannenburg, in Galicia four Austro-Hungarian armies were routed by the Russians with hundreds of thousands of casualties, and in Alsace and Lorraine French infantry charged headlong at German machine guns with little artillery support. Within six weeks the 1.5 million strong French army had taken 25 casualties. In the face of these huge losses, the armies of Europe went underground.

Alan Wakefield: So by the end of 1914 we've got trench deadlock, especially on the Western Front. Everybody's underground and then it becomes an artillery war. This six-inch Howitzer in 1914 was one of the biggest pieces of artillery with the British army. But by 1916 it was dwarfed by larger guns of bigger caliber and much longer range. This was going to be a war where the advantage was very much with the defender and attackers had to find new ways of breaking that deadlock.

As 1915 began on the Western Front the imperative was with the Allies to try and win back some of the territory they'd lost to Germany the year before. There were some successful attacks which proved that trench defenses could be overcome. But commanders struggled to exploit their successes. At the Battle of loos for instance British and French forces were able to break into German positions, but the reserves were held too far from the front line to enable a breakout. The only rapid movement force available was cavalry, who were far too vulnerable to machine gun and artillery fire. On top of that, communication problems made command and control extremely difficult.

So we're here in one of the conservation labs at IWM Duxford and this is where we care from some of our many thousands of objects we hold in the collection, such as this Austro-Hungarian field telephone. So you can just imagine trying to be a commander in the First World War you're relying on on officers at the front sending through information on rudimentary field telephones like this. And the information not coming through or coming through late or garbled messages coming through and it led to poor decision-making. Successes aren't reinforced, quite often you know troops are going to the wrong area, heavy casualties are resulting. A lot of it wasn't their fault they didn't have the information to hand.

After the failure at Loos the British army received a new commander in the form of Sir Douglas Haig, a former cavalryman with an eye for detail and a devotion to duty. The old professional British Army had essentially been wiped out by the end of 1914, with Indian Army, territorial units and some Kitchener volunteers used to make up the numbers. As such the British had only played a bit part on the Western Front so far. But thanks to mounting French losses, 1916 would see Haig's forces take a central role for the first time - whether they were prepared or not.

Alan Wakefield: In 1914 the British Army's tiny compared to other European armies, it's about 220,000 men in total. But by 1916-1917, it's grown to about 2 million men. And the big problem for the British Army is they do not have enough officers, trained staff officers to actually control this army and to actually get it into the field and to use it. So everybody has to learn and unfortunately trying to learn in the middle of a world war means learning on the job and that means there are going to be mistakes made and there are going to be heavy casualties.

Just like Russia Austria-Hungary and France before them, it was now Britain's turn to learn some tough lessons as the mass army was deployed for the first time at the Battle of the Somme. Haig wanted to attack further north in Flanders and give himself more time to train his inexperienced army, but he was overruled on both counts by the French. When the preceding six-day artillery bombardment failed to penetrate the deep German dugouts, their machine gunners mowed down the advancing British soldiers in their thousands. It was the bloodiest day in British military history.

Alan Wakefield: Although it's been seen as a a tragic defeat for the British Army, mainly based on people looking at just the first day. If you look at it in in the strategy of the First World War it was vital, it had to go on after the first day because the pressure had to be taken off the French at Verdun. And of course the Germans really, really suffer on the Somme and along Verdun as well. When it gets to 1917 the Germans are taking more and more desperate strategic gambles to avoid another battle like the Somme.

Another charge leveled at Haig and his commanders was that they were so-called 'chateau generals' who stayed miles behind the front line drinking and feasting without a care for the men under their command. But Haig was not oblivious to the loss of life on the Somme, in fact he visited casualty clearing stations during the battle. He was also deeply concerned for the suffering of ex-servicemen and would go on to help found the Royal British Legion after the war.

Alan Wakefield: We've got a few objects here relating to Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig. Firstly there's a British Union Flag, this was actually carried by his cavalry bodyguard. And then we have his his saddle set, the leather box for containing it, silver sandwich box, and a drinks flask. Haig would be out almost daily going towards the front line, chatting with officers, seeing what the problems were, what improvements could be made. And if he went out before lunch he quite often just stopped by the side of the road have a quick sandwich and a drink and this is what he was using for those visits. So these objects show that Haig wasn't really the 'chateau general'. He was moving around, meeting his troops, meeting his army, and actually finding out what was going on towards the front line.

As the war continued, all sides were constantly experimenting with new tactics and technologies to try and break the trench deadlock. One of these was the tank which made its debut on the Somme in 1916. Although the 50 or so tanks deployed saw mixed results, Haig saw their potential and immediately ordered another thousand to boost his offensive capabilities. This experimentation was happening in the skies as well.

Alan Wakefield: Behind me is the Bristol Fighter which is a great representative example of new technology in the air war of the First World War. Although this is a two-seat aircraft, it could be flown like a single-seat fighter. It could also be used as a bomber, a reconnaissance aircraft, a photo recce aircraft, and could do ground attack. So it really brought flexibility to British air power in the First World War. But air power wasn't the only thing that was was increasing and improving during the First World War. People tried mining to undermine defenses, they tried gas warfare, they tried heavier artillery pieces, and new forms of infantry assault tactics as well. Everything was trial and error and it was really an arms race between the offensive side of warfare and the defensive side of warfare.

By 1918 the Allies believed they finally had the offensive advantage they needed to bring back mobile warfare. After containing the German spring offensive, the Allies went on an attack of their own incorporating all they had learned over the previous years of war. They brought all their new technologies and tactics together in what we now call combined arms or the all-arms battle. It was extremely effective.

Alan Wakefield: So the all-arms battle would unfold not with a long bombardment of four, five, six days. It would be a short hurricane bombardment onto key enemy positions using a mixture of high explosive and gas to dislocate and disorientate. What would then happen is that a creeping barrage would be put down, but when that barrage lifts out of the front line Allied troops are there immediately behind. The infantryman is not advancing in a line, he's a specialist who's either a specialist rifleman, he was a light machine gunner, or a specialist grenade thrower, or rifle grenade man. Alongside the Infantry are lots and lots of tanks to crush the barbed wire and then to take on key strong points held by German infantry. Above them are aircraft, the aircraft are going forward, they're knocking out German anti-tank guns to make sure the tanks go forward, and ground strafing German reserves that are moving up so the German ability to fight back and launch counter attacks is degraded before it even gets near the front line.

Murray Rymer-Jones, Royal Field Artillery: Well we did all the right things for a change. We'd learned to hide our attacks, moving at night from one place to another, then going right through.

Ralph Cooney, Tank Corps: I was commanding a section of tanks. We had then the experience of Cambrai, we knew that we were going to do it properly and we would also be supported by adequate forces of the other arms and the thing was immense success from the start.

Stanley Evers, Australian Imperial Force: The tanks were going forward and taking position after position, the infantry following up behind. You could feel a hair pickling up your spine with excitement because we knew that that was going to be the end of the end of the war.

Alan Wakefield: So the ultimate result of that all arms battle was the defeat of the German army in the main theater of war the Western Front in 1918. And of course if we're going to look at the generals and blame them for many of the defeats in say 1916/1917. We should also look at 1918 and the Hundred Days Offensive and give credit where credit is due.

While the lions led by donkey's myth is an understandable one given the huge casualties suffered on the Western Front, it's not the true story of the British army during the First World War. Upon re-examination, we can see that the army had to learn how to fight in the middle of a world war and that, despite the losses, it helped delivered the killing blow against the Germans in 1918.

Alan Wakefield: If you compare the First World War to the Second World War the main theater of war in the Second World War is the Eastern Front with the Russian forces against the Germans. And it's the Russians that are really wearing down the German army in the same way that the French and the British had to wear down the German army in the First World War before victory could be achieved. But that's not to excuse poor generalship and there was poor generalship on on on all sides of course. But one thing you could level against Haig was that he was often very over optimistic in what he expected his army to be able to do. Many of these attacks were carried on well past the point of diminishing returns. But by 1918 the British army had come a long way. It had commanders in place who knew how to fight a modern war. And while Haig and his commanders may not have reached the heights of lions themselves, they were far from the donkeys of popular myth.

Find out more

Field Marshal, Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, 1918.
© IWM (Q 3255)
Battle of the Somme

Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig

The Battle of the Somme was the first campaign launched by Sir Douglas Haig after he took over command of the British Army on the Western Front. His leadership during the battle made him one of the most controversial figures of the war and has been intensely disputed ever since.

Battle of the Somme. A support company of an assault battalion, of the Tyneside Irish Brigade, going forward shortly after zero hour on 1 July 1916 during the attack on La Boisselle.
Battle of the Somme

What Happened During The Battle Of The Somme?

The Battle of the Somme (1 July - 18 November 1916) was a joint operation between British and French forces intended to achieve a decisive victory over the Germans on the Western Front after 18 months of trench deadlock.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand superimposed on a newspaper announcing 'War with Germany'
First World War

The causes of the First World War

By the summer of 1914, Europe was in a crisis. Just a few weeks before, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, had been assassinated in Sarajevo by a Serbian nationalist. Now, the continent’s largest armies were mobilising against each other with new nations joining the fight seemly every week. The world watched with bated breath as Europe marched to war. So what happened? How did a seemingly insignificant scuffle in South-Eastern Europe become a World War? And why did Britain decide to get involved?