The Western Front: Lions Led by Donkeys?
The scale of human devastation during World War One has often been blamed on incompetent leadership. Dr Gary Sheffield offers an alternative view.
文/加里•谢菲尔德博士 译/王虹 刘迎
By Dr Gary Sheffield
Douglas Haig was “brilliant to the top of his Army boots”. David Lloyd George’s view sums up the attitude of many people generals of World War One. They were, supposedly, “donkeys”: moustachioed incompetents who sent the “lions” of the Poor Bloody Infantry to their deaths in futile battles. Many popular books, films and television programmes echo this belief. The casualty list – one million British Empire dead – and the bloody stalemate of the Western Front seem to add credence to this version of events. But there is another interpretation.
One undeniable fact is that Britain and its allies, not Germany, won the First World War. Moreover, Haig’s army played the leading role in defeating the German forces in the crucial battles of 1918. In terms of the numbers of German divisions engaged, the numbers of prisoners and guns captured, the importance of the stakes and the toughness of the enemy, the 1918 “Hundred Days” campaign rates as the greatest series of victories in British history.
Haig and the Allies
From 1915 to 1918 the BEF learned, in the hardest possible way, how to fight a modern high-intensity war against an extremely tough oppo¬nent. Before 1914, the British army had been primarily a colonial police force, small but efficient. By 1916 it had expanded enormously, taking in a mass of inexperienced civilian volunteers. Later still, it relied on conscripts. Either way, it was a citizen army rather than a professional force.
1915年到 1918年间，面对极其强大的对手，英国远征军以最惨烈的方式学会了如何打现代高强度战争。1914年以前，英国军队主要是殖民地警察部队，规模小但效率高。到 1916年，通过征募大量没有作战经验的平民志愿者，英军大规模扩充。后来，英军一直依赖征兵。总之，英军是民兵而非职业军人。
The generals, used to handling small-scale forces in colonial warfare, had just as much to learn about a type of war for which they were almost en¬tirely unprepared. It is not surprising that in the course of its apprenticeship the BEF had a number of bloody setbacks. What was extraordinary was that, despite this unpromising beginning, by 1918 this army of bank clerks and shop assistants, businessmen and miners should have emerged as a for¬midable fighting force.
Techniques and strategies
In 1914–17 the defensive had a temporary dominance over the offensive. A combination of “high tech” weapons (quick-firing artillery and machine guns) and “low tech” defences (trenches and barbed wire) made the attacker’s job formidably difficult. Communications were poor. Armies were too big and dispersed to be commanded by a general in per¬son, as Wellington had at Waterloo a century before, and radio was in its infancy. Even if the infantry and artil¬lery did manage to punch a hole in the enemy position, generals lacked a fast-moving force to exploit the situ¬ation, to get among the enemy and turn a retreat into a rout.
In previous wars, horsed cav¬alry had performed such a role, but cavalry were generally of little use in the trenches of the Western Front. In World War Two, armoured ve¬hicles were used for this purpose, but the tanks of Great War vintage were simply not up to the job. With com¬manders mute and an instrument of exploitation lacking, World War One generals were faced with a tactical di¬lemma unique in military history.