First World War
The relationship between the British soldiers and their commanders is a vital part of the war; therefore, it is of great importance that we take their attitudes and relationships into account when studying the First World War and ultimately, the consequences. Without question, the men during the war fought with great bravery and courage till their tragic deaths for their country, but did their commanders also put in this same effort?
Many historians past and present continue to share and fluctuate in views on the relationship between British soldiers and their commanders, in this essay I will study and evaluate three sources to see how useful they are to an historian, and inevitably come to an accurate conclusion. Source A shows us a view of soldiers’ attitudes towards their generals in the form of a cartoon, the drawing and caption is from a satirical British magazine ‘Punch’. The cartoon shows us the major- General addressing the men (his troops) before practicing an attack behind the lines.
The sources suggest to us, a restrained conflict between the General and troops; the soldiers resented the protection the generals had and they saw the commanders as remote and cowardly in the war effort. Evidence to suggest this statement is true is General Morland- he was regarded as a fine, brave fighting soldier, however his infamous commanding on the last day of the Somme proves otherwise. He watched the whole of the battle three miles away in a tree, although in defence of Morland, by viewing the battle so far away he had a much broader and wider view of what was happening.
On the other hand, this view also has it’s limitations in what it can tell us about these relationships; twelve percent of soldiers that fought in the war died in comparison to the officers, eighteen percent died- seventy-eight generals died. Showing us that they were more likely to have died in the war. To support this, Captain Maxwell an officer during the war, wanted to be with his troops fighting in the battle of the Somme proving the view incorrect. In regards to the actual source, a British magazine called ‘Punch’- it is a cartoon and extremely over the top, exaggerated and a satirical view of the war.
The magazine represented the views of the people back home in Britain when the war was being fought. Therefore its reliability and accuracy is questionable in that, the views incorporated into the cartoon were not of someone experiencing the war. Soldiers didn’t read this magazine that much and they preferred publications such as the ‘Wipers Times’ casting further doubt over the source. The level of accuracy in the caption is also dubious; The Regimental Sergeant, a high ranked Non commission Officer insults the General in public, even if it were true, it would be unlikely that he would have said it in such a manner.
Furthermore the NCO would have had loads of experience as he was probably once a career soldier working his way up the ranks, so he would have known not to say this because it would have decreased morale and confidence. Overall, this source was ultimately produced to entertain people during the war, with biased over exaggerated public opinions and it’s factual accuracy is very imprecise and unreliable to an historian studying the attitudes of soldiers towards high commanders during the war, and must be treated with caution if taken into account at all.
Source B is a poem entitled ‘The General’ by Siegfried Sassoon who was a junior officer in the British Army during World War One. Very much like Source A, Sassoon supports views of which the Generals were resented by their troops because they were distant and never put themselves in danger, he also focuses part of his poem on the plans they used that cost many lives. An example of this is on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The initial bombardment plans were flawed, and the generals failed to adapt, hardly any of the objectives were met and there were huge casualties and men lost.
Sassoon mentions the battle is Arras in particular because he fought in this battle and there were over 160,000 men lost. It was if they were sending men into the war for the sake of it. These frustrations are shown in Sassoon’s poem, “And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine. ” in addition these themes of anger and frustration are carried out by other anti-war poets such as Wilfred Owen. The fact that Sassoon was there in 1917 gives the source a high level of accuracy, however he was a junior officer and there might have been a destruction between the attitudes to junior officers and attitudes towards generals.
Siegfried Sassoon’s personal details are of a decorated nature and this must be taken into account when evaluating his representation. It seems strange that he’d become so anti-war. After fighting in the war he was sent to a mental hospital, so the typicality of his views must be taken into account. The fact that this source is a poem is significant when evaluating its accuracy. The points and facts used by Sassoon may have been altered and twisted slightly to make good poetry (poetic license).
Overall, there are parts of this source which are reliable and there are parts which seem unconvincing, especially in provenance. Whilst some points and facts in his poem are accurate, his own personal background puts doubt on this, especially as the poem was not typical of the war times. His strong anti-war sentiment towards the Generals in particular casts further qualm over his poems and thus the reliability. Source M is a letter by a front-line officer, G. Thomas, to the parents of a dead soldier. It suggests to us a good relationship between the platoon commander (G.
Thomas), the soldier, and with the sergeant (NCO). This source is useful to a historian in several respects; in particular it helps shed light on how people joined up and managed to work well together despite them both being of different ranks, ultimately it shows us that their were some good relationships between the soldiers and the higher ranks. Having said that, a historian should exercise caution when using this source because it is only the officer’s view of events and his relationship with the soldier and it may not have been what the soldier thought.
Also, the letter wouldn’t show any negative relationships especially as it is being sent home to his parents, so it may be inaccurate. G. Thomas, the platoon commander was new to the platoon, so he was probably a soldier before, and shared a good relationship previously with him, so he’s bound to give him a lot of praise. Following on from that, one must question the distinction between junior officers and generals and how people became higher ranked during the war.
In regards to the context of the letter, the typicality of it must be put under further scrutiny; many of these letters were written during the war, for instance, Captain Tweed of Salford Pals would write home to all parents of those who died. This is just one letter, so perhaps not all relationships were like this. Overall, I think this source would be unreliable to an historian. Although it does present to us some traits that suggest it is genuine and all relationships were similar, it’s hard to know how typical it actually is.
In conclusion, I think that all of these sources are unreliable and inaccurate to a certain extent. Although all three of them present us a lot of valuable information on views during the First World War- we have a view from the public, a view from a soldier and a view from a commander and they must all be respected when studying them. I feel that source B is the most useful source, despite it being bias to one side of the argument, using provenance and in particular my own knowledge it seems the most accurate source.