History is full of truths to be discovered. However, over the past one hundred years the greatest divergence between a story told and its reality is that of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) during World War I.
We have been led to believe that the hopelessness and futility of the battle between the Western Front trenches was a product of poor leadership; that British generals were grossly incompetent and responsible for the wholesale slaughter of British soldiers, enshrined by the image of ‘lions led by donkeys’. Lions Led by Lions tells the true story of the role played by the BEF and its generals in the war.
The story starts with the arms’ race leading up to the outbreak of war. Although the Royal Navy received the resources it needed to ensure continued domination of the high seas, Britain’s politicians neglected the preparations of the potential combatants on the European continent. When the BEF deployed to northern France in 1914 it had 150,000 men, compared to more than 4 million in the armies of Germany and France, between which it was sandwiched. The failure of the British political leadership to prepare a British reserve army for deployment in 1915 meant that by the time it arrived in 1916 for the Battle of the Somme it joined a weakened French army and faced a battle-hardened German army. As such the BEF was forced to learn its lessons the hard way, on the battlefield.
Despite this, the BEF evolved during the next two years to become the most effective army on the Western Front, proven at the little-known four-day Battle of Amiens that began on 8 August 1918. This battle should be celebrated alongside Blenheim, Waterloo, El Alamein and D-Day, but instead has faded into obscurity behind the Battle of the Somme and others. The BEF pioneered modern combined arms’ tactics when it pushed the German army back more than 6 miles, which became the turning point for the war, allowing the BEF and Allied forces to celebrate a further 96 days of unbroken victory, which, in conjunction with the subsequent nine-month blockade by the Royal Navy, ended in the signing of the Versailles Treaty and the official end of the war.
Lions Led by Lions also focuses on the evolution of the tank, which the BEF adopted with an open-mindedness that resulted in the collapse of morale among German soldiers, who had to face these terrifying machines, and ultimately the collapse of the German threat.
So where did this negative evaluation of British generals come from? After all, the British Army suffered significantly fewer casualties then the French and German armies, and the BEF commander Field Marshal Haig was extremely popular with his soldiers, right up to his death. The villain in the story was David Lloyd George, wartime prime minister and promoter of the phrase ‘lions led by donkeys’. He clashed numerous times with Haig about what course to take during the war, and rewrote history in his memoirs after Haig’s death in an attempt to separate himself from what were the worst losses any British leader had suffered in a conflict.
On the one-hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I it is time to tell the story of one of Britain’s greatest feats of arms, and one for which we all owe our fallen soldiers a huge debt of honour. It is time to remove the stain from our generals’ names and those of their men and be proud of their magnificent achievement.
Most of all, we owe them the honour of learning from the key lessons of failure that led to the outbreak of such a war – that sticking one’s head in the sand when faced with aggressor nations will never save anyone from a war, and that however expensive it seems to be to be locked into an arms’ race, it is even more expensive to fall behind, and through the perception of weakness encourage an aggressor to initiate conflict. This is a lesson that today’s politicians have sadly forgotten and need urgently to recognise if we are to prevent a repeat of such a human tragedy on a mass scale.
A special thank you to Peter Livanos for his support of the Lions Led By Lions thought leadership project.