Lions led by donkeys?

This hook discusses one of the more controversial figures of the First World War, General Douglas Haig, who ordered the allied forces’ Somme offensive in July 1916. The high death toll at battlefields such as the Somme contributed to the sense that heroic soldiers were being led by incompetent generals, but some historians have challenged this assumption.

Portrait of the British General Douglas Haig by South Australian J. H. Chinner.

Portrait of the British General Douglas Haig by South Australian caricaturist and cartoonist J. H. Chinner.

Context

The British general depicted in the caricature is one of the more controversial figures of the First World War. He was the commander who ordered the Somme offensive in July 1916. In the battle that followed, 20,000 British soldiers were killed on the first day and a further 40,000 wounded. More New Zealanders were killed or wounded in the battle of the Somme than at Gallipoli: approximately one-seventh of the 15,000 men in the New Zealand Division were killed and two-fifths wounded. New Zealand’s Unknown Warrior, entombed at the National War Memorial, is almost certainly a soldier killed in the Battle of the Somme.

Opinions about Haig have changed over time. In 1928 his death was a day of national mourning. In the 1960s, his role in the First World War was viewed more critically. The high death toll at battlefields such as the Somme contributed to the sense that heroic soldiers were being led by incompetent generals. This sentiment was encapsulated in the phrase “lions led by donkeys”, a phrase that caught on following the publication of Alan Clark’s 1961 book The Donkeys.

Revisionist historians have challenged some of the assumptions made about General Haig and other First World War commanders. They recognise the challenges Haig faced commanding such a huge army and draw attention to the lack of communication technologies available to him. These historians believe that Haig was a successful commander who was no worse (if no better) than other commanders.

Possible discussion questions

  • What defines a true leader?
  • Should we expect higher standards from leaders than from non-leaders? Why or why not?
  • Why do you think Haig is regarded as a controversial figure of the First World War?
  • Do you think the “lions led by donkeys” phrase is justified? How could you find out?
  • How were New Zealand leaders (military and political) viewed during the First World War and afterwards?
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