19 DECEMBER, 1915: The Empire’s New Clothes

A couple of centenaries today, both reminders that the greatest military power on Earth had stumbled into a bit of pickle as 1915 drew to a close.  In the Eastern Mediterranean, British imperial forces began their planned evacuation of Gallipoli’s bridgeheads from Hell, Suvla Bay and Anzac Cove.  On the same Sunday, General Sir Douglas Haig took formal command of the BEF on the Western Front.  In British military terms these were major events, divesting the Empire’s war effort of two disasters in Sir John French and the entire Dardanelles operation, and for public purposes they could be presented as a fresh start after a year of bleak disappointments on every front.

The British war effort was in need of a fresh start.  Popular and political discontent was gathering as military failures chipped away the veneer of permanent good news that patriotism (and government) demanded of the British press.  This was especially true of those newspapers controlled by Lord Northcliffe.

Owner of (among others) The Times and The Daily Mail, the self-appointed voice of ‘the classes and the people’ was arguably the most powerful press baron in British history.  Northcliffe’s orchestration of the Shell Scandal during the late spring had played a major role in forcing a change of government, and his basic position was always that Germany – a state he hated and feared with unbridled passion – wasn’t being attacked with sufficient vigour.  He was a committed ‘Westerner’, sure the War could only be won in France and noisily against the distraction of resources to other fronts – so on the face of it an end to the Gallipoli adventure and a change at the top in France looked like positive government responses to press criticism.

All quite convincing if you wanted to be convinced, but it had nothing much to do with the truth.

Take Gallipoli. Of all the land fronts contested by British forces, sub-Saharan Africa aside, only Gallipoli had been conceived as an offensive operation.  Britain was fighting to defend Belgium and France, to protect imperial interests in Mesopotamia and Palestine, and (in theory at least) to rescue Serbia via Salonika.  The Dardanelles operation had been a bold attempt to change the War’s focus by knocking out the Ottoman Empire with a single blow, and its long, costly, embarrassing failure dealt a terrible blow to those arguing for that kind of lateral thinking.  The plan’s chief architect and sponsor, Churchill, quit the government and joined his old regiment on the Western Front, while the rest of British strategic thinking went back into its shell.  Some British resources would be sent to Mesopotamia and Palestine for offensive purposes in 1916, but the vast majority would be thrown into the battle for France or committed to a defensive posture in Salonika.

So all change but no progress when it came Britain’s strategic approach in late 1915, and the same applied to the tactical change of command on the Western Front.

Field Marshal Sir John French had to go, that much was clear to anyone not completely susceptible to propaganda.  Appointed in 1914 to command a small expeditionary force, and a cavalry officer with a reputation for colonial dash, he had proved timid and uncertain in command of a mass army.  His leadership had been characterised by extremes of optimism and pessimism, a chronic inability to liaise effectively with French commanders and a preference for caution at all times.  He also struggled to cope with large-scale operations, culminating in an inept display during the autumn’s Artois-Loos Offensive that was considered partly responsible for its failure and sealed his fate.

Like many a commentator before me, I feel the need to come to the poor Field Marshal’s defence, perhaps pointing out that even very good generals might have struggled with the rapid transition from leading a few hundred horsemen against colonial natives to commanding of millions of men in trenches.  Unfortunately I’ve read his relentlessly self-serving and notoriously unreliable memoirs, written during his post-War spell as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, so I’ll leave him to suffer posterity’s scorn and move on to Haig.

Haig does deserve more sympathy than the heritage industry can usually spare.  An intelligent and efficient staff officer, a good organiser with a solid record in command of the BEF’s First Corps, he was an urbane and orthodox figure, comfortable in political circles, on good personal terms with the King and generally admired by his peers.  This isn’t the time to discuss his future performance in detail, but broadly speaking it was a lot more competent than his popular reputation as a serial butcher suggests.

On the other hand, and this is my point, Haig’s command was no more innovative than could be expected from a man chosen precisely because he was a trusted executive of convention.  As the BEF’s senior field commander after French, Haig was the safe, predictable choice, approved by King George V on the grounds that he wasn’t ‘too clever’ and charged with carrying out more of the same, more effectively.  Of course Haig was a believer in the ‘breakthrough tactics’ of 1915, and of course he was a byword for the steady but unspectacular, instinctively attracted to tried and tested tactics, loyal to subordinates in the field and inclined to blame chance or staff errors for their failures.

In short, feel free to deplore Haig’s persistent faith in the horrific bloodletting on the Western Front during 1916 and 1917, and in the tactics and generals involved, but be aware that he was the walking incarnation of the British high command’s strategic paralysis.  Far from setting off on a fresh start at the end of 1915, British leaders were stalled at the crossroads, forced to take stock but unable to come up with any positive ideas about a change of direction.

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