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How useful are sources A, B and M to an historian studying the attitudes of British soldiers to their commanders during the First World War?

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Introduction

How useful are sources A, B and M to an historian studying the attitudes of British soldiers to their commanders during the First World War? The relationship between soldiers and their commanders has often been called into question since World War I, leading to ultimate victory for Britain, but also extremely heavy losses on both sides. This has raised debate as to whether or not commanders such as General Douglas Haig were really in touch with the men under their command. In the following lines I shall examine whether attitudes between the ordinary front line soldiers and their commanders were really as strained as is often portrayed or if the relationship was one of mutual respect for men doing their duty, the defence of their country and her allies. By 1916 the initial ecstasy after the outbreak of the war was all but obliterated, with the realisation that the war would not be as short as first believed. Scepticism within the British public, who had been told that the war would be won by Christmas 1914, was beginning to become apparent and publications such as Punch magazine were reflecting this. Source A (from Punch magazine) suggests cowardice on the part of the generals, claiming that they did not share the suffering of those under their command and kept their distance from the battlefield. Haig, for example, only visited the front line twice in the entire war. However, when considering the usefulness of this source, we must remember that the magazine claims to 'hang the devil of current affairs', often mocking those in command ...read more.

Middle

It is perhaps fitting that this is how their leaders should be judged, not by public opinion but by testimonies of ordinary soldiers, many of whom would never return from the battlefields of the western front. John Keegan, a modern military historian, suggests that Haig was 'an efficient and highly skilled soldier who did much to lead Britain to victory in the First World War'. Is there sufficient evidence in sources C to L to support this interpretation? Use the sources and your knowledge to explain your answer. The Battle of the Somme has always been seen by many as 'the worst ever period in the history of the British Army', blaming the generals and in particular General Douglas Haig for the loss of 20,000 lives on the first day of the Somme alone and 40,000 wounded. He has often been criticised as a 'blunderer', treating the men like pawns but the fact that Britain eventually emerged victorious may also suggest otherwise and it is my intention to assess this. When it was realised that the war was not going to be short-lived as first thought, the British commanders turned their attention to a war of attrition designed to wear away at the German forces and to 'kill as many German forces as possible'. The German attack at Verdun also put pressure on Haig to turn his attention away from an attack in Flanders to an offensive on the Somme in summer 1916, in order to relieve the French. ...read more.

Conclusion

Whilst this cannot necessarily be taken at face value as they were written with the possibility of being published, I do not believe that it would be strategically or indeed morally correct to continue an assault if it were clear that sufficient progress could not be made without very heavy losses. In spite of the initial military failure of the attack at the Somme, it should also be said that the British Army had evolved into a more mobile and formidable force. By 1918, they had adopted the German tactics of 'fire and manoeuvre', involving assault teams with grenades, flamethrowers and machine guns, often operating at night and creating passages through which a larger force could travel as was seen in World War II. Whilst I do not believe that he was 'one of the great men of the twentieth century', Haig was not the uncaring incompetent as is commonly stated. He had authorised the first ever night attack on 14th July 1916, despite having reservations and the success of this, damaging the enemy when the least expected it, paved the way for further tactical improvement and the victories on the European battlefields that lead to the end of the war in 1918. The lack of prior experience of total warfare, combining equipment and the bravery of men, meant that heavy losses, particularly in the early stages of the war, were inevitable and it is perhaps the advance in technology, spearheaded by the men under Haig's command, that is their legacy. ...read more.

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