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World War One Key Individuals

Get to know who was involved in WWI and what their roles were.

Sir John French

French commanded the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914 until he was replaced by Douglas Haig in December 1915. He was an experienced soldier, having served in the Sudan and also as a prominent cavalry officer during the 2nd Boer War. From the outset, French was pessimistic about the chances of defeating the Central Powers and he was reluctant to order offensives or authorise military action that he suspected would result in a high casualty rate. Despite a visit from Lord Kitchener in September 1914, and initial success in maintaining the Belgian ports, the Field Marshal had little appetite for a war of attrition and regularly came into conflict with his French allies. By the close of 1915, it was apparent that French was reluctant to seize the initiative and launch a major offensive against the German trenches; this ultimately led to his sacking and redeployment.

Sir Douglas Haig

Haig took over as Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in December 1915 and remained in this position until the conflict ended. He was therefore in overall command of British troops during the final allied victory campaign in 1918 and he was greeted as a hero upon his return to Britain, as was demonstrated through the public outpouring of grief at his funeral a decade later. Yet Haig was also responsible for ordering British troops into action in the bloodiest and most futile battles of the war, particularly at the Somme in 1916 and at Passchendaele the following year. His knowledge of trench warfare was limited; since joining the army in 1884, he had seen action in the Sudan and South Africa but his expertise lay in cavalry fighting, not an attritional ground war. Haig has been criticised for remaining wedded to frontal offensives that resulted in high casualty rates for little strategic gain, but it is inaccurate to see his tactics as static. Although he could have pushed for faster technological development, he did gradually employ new techniques and ultimately, it was a similar type of attack that resulted in allied victory in 1918.

H H Asquith

Although he had been a fairly popular Liberal prime minister before the war because of his social welfare programme and reform of the House of Lords, Asquith proved unsuccessful as a wartime leader. He was reluctant to introduce many government directives, to increase control over the economy or to introduce conscription because this clashed with his laissez faire (non-invasive) liberalism. Ultimately though, he found these steps unavoidable. By May 1915, his cabinet was in crisis because of the failure of the Gallipoli campaign and the shell scandal, caused by Sir John French’s complaints about the quality and quantity of artillery shells on the frontline. Although he attempted to preserve his position by forming a coalition government with Irish Unionists, Asquith was further blamed for the failures of the Somme offensive and forced to resign in December 1916.

David Lloyd George

The former Chancellor of the Exchequer held various positions in Asquith’s war cabinet, including Minister of Munitions and Secretary of State for War before he aligned with the conservatives against his leader in December 1916, and took over his position as prime minister. Although he accepted the need for increased government control more than Asquith, he was continuously concerned about the progress of British troops at the front and regularly clashed with Haig over the high casualty rates and lack of territory gained. He was instrumental in persuading Haig to accept a unified allied command, under the leadership of the French general, Ferdinand Foch. Lloyd George also successfully dealt with the strain that total war placed on civilian society- introducing rationing and a convoy system to alleviate the threat from U Boats in the English Channel.