To what extent is the phrase “Lions led by donkeys” a fair description of what happened at the Battle of the Somme?


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In 1916 witnessed the commencement of the battle of the Somme. Through the course of that one battle, a million British men were slaughtered compared to the combined number of American casualties in both the first and Second World War. The Battle of the Somme was planned as a joint French and British operation, approved by Haig. However, the German attack on Verdun in February 1916 turned the Somme offensive into a large-scale British attack. Haig accepted responsibility for the action and with the help of Rawlinson who devised his own plan of attack. The vital part of Haig’s strategy was an eight-day attack to destroy the German defenses.

Soldiers were lined up according to battlefield strategies, and led by major officers. The blood of the nations was poured into conditions of such horror and violence. “Lions led by donkeys”, was how the German soldiers referred to their British counterpart. Ever since the end of WW1 in 1918 which was won by the British allies against the Germans it has been hugely debated whether the phrase ‘Lions Led by Donkeys’ is correct. In this essay I am going to talk about the extent of which the phrase was a fair description of what had happened at the battle of the Somme, by looking at different people’s point of view about General Haig.


Douglas Haig was Britain’s commander-in-chief during the battle of the Somme and took much criticism for the utter loss of life in this battle. Haig put his belief in one final mighty push against the Germans to be executed in the Somme region of France.1 Haig did not rate very highly the war’s new weaponry. “The machine gun is a much over rated weapon,” he said in 1915; he made similar remarks over the use of the tank. The tank was a British invention which had made its debut on the Somme in September 1916. He thought that by bringing together a large armed force on the Somme, the Germans would divert troops from Verdun, where he believed he was destroying the Germans.

The British army had lost a massive amount of soldiers on the first day of the Battle; Britain’s army had suffered the highest number of casualties in history, which were 60,000 men down. 2Many people still question Haig’s idea of wanting to still move forward. People claim that Haig should have learned from the statistics and adjusted his tactics, and argue that the cost in terms of human casualties was too high for a for a 5 mile gain at the end of the battle.

The 5 mile gain was nothing compared to the cost of human casualties, and Haig seemed like he didn’t care about the deaths and in the end the soldiers who died, died for nothing, because of Haig. The British were unprepared for war; Haig could not change his tactics because he only knew one, which was conventional tactics. The soldiers were unable to keep up with the rivalry, as they were unprepared to take on their opposition with such a large number.3


Source 1: An extract from a book called “Butchers and Bunglers of World War”

‘Haig was as stubborn as a donkey and as unthinking as a donkey. The principle which guided him was if he could kill more Germans than the Germans could kill his own men, then he would at some point win the win. That is an appalling kind of strategy. It’s not a strategy at all, its slaughter. The Somme was criminal negligence. He knew that he had no chance of a breakthrough, but he still sent his men to their deaths.’4

This source originated from a book called “Butchers and Bunglers of World War” written by John Laffin published in 1988. John Laffin was an Australian tour guide, which showed he obviously did some research to come up with such a strong opinion on General Haig. His parents both served with the Australians in Gallipoli and France.

It is clear that the book’s aim was to expose the brutality and ‘guilt’ of the uncaring generals. The verity that the author still had a strong opinion towards Haig’s actions, years after the Battle of the Somme ended, gives the impression that Haig really was an incompetent “donkey”. This source is useful in helping people come up with a strong intuition of who Haig really is. Although it sounds very biased, it is very useful, as it is still an opinion and an attitude. However, there are some limitations to this source; Laffin does not discuss the situation at Verdun, which is a cause that should be looked at. Also, he was not an eyewitness, making us questions if Haig was really a “donkey” and a coward.

Source 2: A quote from a British general who fought in both wars.

‘Germany’s spirit of resistance was broken by the courage and resolution of Haig’s armies, which had complete confidence in the leadership of their Commander. They were inspired by his determination, for he never wavered from his purpose of breaking down the powers of resistance of the enemy, both morally and physically. Had Haig not had the moral courage to shoulder the main burden of the struggle in the Somme battles of 1916, French resistance would have crumbled. Haig was one of the main architects of the Allied victory.’5

The provenance of this source was written by a British General in 1973. The date of which this was written was a long time after which, the Battle of the Somme had ended. The fact that it was written a long time after, means that the General wrote it in his old age and his memory could have just been very mild. Also taking into account that he fought in the Battle of the Somme means that he was an eye witness. He captured footage with his very own eyes. “Haig was one of the main architects of the Allied victory”, this shows that the general strongly believes their country’s victory was because of Haig.

As a military commander he understood the problems facing Haig during the Battle, and had witnessed Haig’s tactics at first hand. This shows that he had a close relationship with Haig, and understands why and for what reasons Haig had wanted the soldiers to do what they did. The source is very useful because he was a General, and he would know better than others how the Battle was. It takes into account what was happening at Verdun and also points out that Haig’s tactics eventually helped them win the war. However, we still would questions its reliability. Was it really written by a British General, or was it just a historian trying to think otherwise of Haig?


Looking back at the evidence and source 1, it clearly shows that Haig was not the right man for the job. He lacked knowledge, and was really a ‘donkey’: mustachioed incompetent man who sent the ‘lions’ of the Poor Bloody Infantry to their deaths in futile battles.6 Haig has been criticized by many over the years for his tactics. The wartime Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, was one such critic. He wrote that he sometimes wondered whether he should have resigned on more than one occasion rather than permit Haig to continue with his strategy. 7

The BEF learned, in the hardest possible way, how to fight a modern high-intensity war against an extremely tough opponent. 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. However they still relied on conscripts. Either way, it was a citizen army rather than a professional force.8 The verity that the British army had been a small, efficient army and had expanded with innocent civilian volunteers already made it seem like they were unprepared. Furthermore, Haig was able to give them as many directions, because they were clueless, they didn’t know what to do, and so needed guidance.

Source 2 however, proves to admire Haig’s tactics. This gives a different feel to the phrase, because in this case, the lions are still led by the donkeys, but it seems as if they like that way. On the other hand, the British General who wrote it, may have been treated better compared to the soldiers, and so feels and thinks differently of Haig. Haig encouraged the development of advanced weaponry such as tanks, machine guns and aircraft.


In conclusion, Haig was an incompetent donkey, who caused the many tragic deaths during the Battle of the Somme. He was generally unprepared but wanted to gain victory, by overpowering the numbers of men; even with the large numbers of casualties on the first day, Haig allowed for the Battle to continue, even though he did not gain land and did not get any advantage. The phrase “lions led by donkeys” was not so much of a fair description of the Battle of the Somme; it was a bit too harsh. The soldiers may have felt bossed around, but seeing that they were inexperience civilians who volunteered, made it seem like Haig had a reason to come up and boss them around telling them what they had to do and sending them to their deaths. The generals, soldiers and commanders were all just trying to do their best to win victory and success.










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