Siegfried Sassoon

The churchyard at Mells in Somerset

Poetry and literature have been influential in shaping the British narrative of the First World War. One of the best known writers was Siegfried Sassoon. His poetry has played a significant role in determining some of the most popular perceptions of the war. This view of how the war was conducted was underlined by his autobiographical account The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston.

Criticism of the command of the British army has not been hard to find in the historiography of the war with Sassoon one of the leading lights. Integral to that command function, the work of the staff has been the subject of fierce condemnation by many of the memoirs generated by the war. If an action failed, blame the staff. They have been perceived as an elite who did not share the dangers of war with the troops. The staff have been characterised as incompetent, isolated and indulged.

Was there another side to that argument? What about the case in defence of the staff? It was notable that Sassoon wrote, ‘Let the Staff write their own books about the Great War, say I. The Infantry were biased against them, and their authentic story will be read with interest’. In my book, The Men Who Planned the War (2016) I have endeavoured to tell that story.

The Black Watch at Ypres 1914

This memorial to the Black Watch commemorates the battle known as ‘Nonne Boschen’ (Nun’s Wood) on 11 November 1914. The Prussian Guard together with the 54th Reserve Division had been ordered to take Polygon Wood. The barrage began at 0630. At 0900 German troops advanced on a nine mile front in mist and rain. Across the line the attack faltered apart from a gap between the southern end of Polygon Wood and Nun’s Wood. A company of Royal Engineers with forty members of the Black Watch had just completed a strong point here. This was merely a trench inside a cottage garden with a few strands of barbed wire. When the Guards attacked the British troops opened up such an effective fire that the Germans broke formation. With the help of divisional artillery they were stopped and eventually beaten back. The action of the Black Watch in preventing any breakthrough has been remembered here with this fighting figure.

Senior Staff Officers

The highest level of staff officer in the British army was a Major General General Staff. On the Western Front each of the five armies had an MGGS heading a team of staff officers. For example, Major General ‘Tim’ Harrington was the senior staff officer at Second Army. He worked closely with the Commander in Chief General Sir Herbert Plumer. The MGGS was a key individual in the command team.

During the war, there were only fifteen officers who served in the MGGS position on the Western Front. A small group of individuals who had a significant influence on the way operations were planned and prosecuted. They were all regular soldiers with an average age of forty five. All of them had been to Staff College.

Although this group of senior officers played a critical role during the war, little has been written about them. I am currently researching this small cohort to evaluate just how important they were to achieving victory.

Herbert Lawrence and Douglas Haig

Haig and Lawrence grandsons

In 1918, Sir Herbert Lawrence worked closely with Sir Douglas Haig as his Chief of Staff. One hundred years on, this photograph was taken in front of Haig’s statue on Whitehall in London. The author is pictured with John Abel Smith (centre), grandson of Lawrence and Lord Astor of Hever (right), grandson of Haig.

Soldier Banker (2012)

General Sir Herbert Lawrence became Chief of Staff in 1918. Many were surprised at this appointment. He had given up his lucrative job as a City banker to rejoin the army at the outbreak of war. This article traces his astonishing rise from retired major to second most important soldier in the army. The team led by Lawrence introduced new ideas and a fresh attitude. He forged a strong partnership with the Commander in Chief, Sir Douglas Haig. This proved crucial in meeting the challenges of a large-scale ‘industrial’ war.

Described as ‘man of outstanding ability both as a soldier and in business’, Lawrence made a significant contribution to Allied victory which has largely been overlooked.

‘Soldier Banker: Lieutenant-General Sir Herbert Lawrence’ was published in The Journal for Army Historical Research in Spring 2012, Volume 90, Number 361.

The drawing of Lawrence shown here is held in the private collection of John and Caroline Abel Smith.

Arras- the catacombs

During the First World War the extensive catacombs underneath Arras were used by the military. They sheltered troops and provided a safe transit up to the forward areas. A field hospital was based here. Many surgeons operated on the wounded within these underground spaces. The catacombs offered protection from hostile artillery fire for both soldiers and civilians.

Trenches at Ypres

Sanctuary Wood- Ypres
  • These preserved trenches at the Sanctuary Wood Museum were the scene of bitter fighting. In October 1917, James Hadley a Sapper Officer wrote in his diary, ‘Of the terrible and horrible scenes I have seen in the war, Sanctuary Wood is the worst’.

The Men Who Planned the War (2016)

The staff of the British army have not had a good press. During the Allied victory celebrations there were few who chose to raise a glass to them. They have been seen as incompetent, ignorant and indulged. Their reputation tarnished by the high level of casualties. Soldiers sent to their deaths by uncaring bunglers who were cosseted in chateaux far from the fighting. But are these claims justified? Have we really taken a hard look at the evidence?

This book takes up the case for the staff. It argues that they did a professional job under challenging circumstances. The detailed and sometimes mundane work of the staff was not the stuff of which heroes were made. While there were mistakes, their successes were overlooked. They made a significant contribution to the war effort which has been overlooked. It is time the record was put straight.