With the centenary celebrations of the First World War upon us, it appears that an unexpected number of people have developed an inherent interest in learning more about a period of our history which often feels so remote. With the media constantly churning out stories of untold heroism, ingenuity and nationalistic martyrdom by those on the home front or fighting abroad, many have developed an overwhelming sense of empathy for the common man, seen to have been forced into the War by a distant and unsympathetic upper class. This traditional misconception of the way war was waged by military superiors in the British army continues to be regurgitated by popular culture too, with inaccurate stereotypes being formed and cemented by programmes such as Blackadder Goes Forth and the recent film adaptation of War Horse. Even the phrase itself, taken from historian Alan Clarke’s 1961 book, The Donkeys, has proven to be made up, thus providing no valid historical basis for thought formation.
The image itself of the officer class during the Great War is one synonymous with old, pompous imperialists sporting handlebar moustaches; fine dining in chateau’s all across the Western Front while the ordinary private was sent to his death into no-man’s land. It is impossible to deny that on the surface, this imagery is similar to the truth. Most did have impressive facial hair, and the majority were indeed well into their later years. It is also true that many operations were devised and instructed from the relative comfort of old French manors behind the Front lines. Yet, this must not be in any way confused with cowardice. Both high and low ranking officers could often be found visiting the trenches in order to assess the practical implications of their war making, or to personally lead the men. More British officers died during the Battle of Loos in 1915 than during the entirety of World War Two.
The main misconception held by many with regards to the officer class however is that of their attitude towards the common soldier. People often assume that the heavy death toll suffered by the British during the War results from a complete lack of care by officers as to preventing the loss of ordinary soldiers. It is undeniable that the casualty rate was indeed tragically high, but not as a result of contempt for the lower classes.
Officers prior to World War One had no military experience of combat akin to that of what they were to face. The Great War was an industrialised one, whereas traditionally they had been solely small-scale colonial wars against primitive tribal opposition. As proud Victorians, these men found it exceedingly difficult to understand how their comparatively vast resources should be utilised in a conflict so alien in style of combat and in a theatre so different to those of their experience.
Sir Douglas Haig is the man most often ridiculed as being typical of this stereotype. After conducting operations at both the Somme and Ypres with incredibly high losses, he is remembered at present by most as being nothing more than a butcher who needlessly sent tens of thousands of young British men to their deaths. Yet in the wake of World War One, he was celebrated around the UK with a hero’s reception; a statue was raised in his honour and his funeral attracted a crowd larger than that for Lady Diana’s. People during the post-war period clearly understood the transitional nature of the expectancy of the officer class, and how difficult it was for those in it to adapt and thrive. It was Haig, after all, who led the British during the Hundred Days Offensive, the final military push which forced the Kaiser into an armistice.
History in its populist media-inflamed form will never cease to paint images and tell stories of the officer class during World War One as incompetent, unsympathetic and downright contemptuous. One can only hope that in the future, more and more people will begin to take any tales of this ilk with more than a pinch of salt.