Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Essentials of Generalship

Even good generals, and they are vanishingly rare in human history, have only a limited range of abilities. It is unreasonable to expect any man (and it has almost invariably been a man), to be everything from an inspirational leader and tactician in regimental ground combat, to a clear-sighted analyst of geopolitical and global trends on an international scale. Yet the term ‘general’ in modern warfare supposedly includes everyone: from the Brigadier defending a hill or village; to the Army Commander carefully resting and rotating his Corps; to the Theatre Commander deploying multi-service resources across large segments of the globe; all the way to the Chief of Staff negotiating global responsibilities and authorities with the political representatives of a dozen nations.

The skills required for these different tasks are amazingly varied, and no man encompasses all of them. Indeed the number who can master more than a few of them is so small that every human conflict reveals more bad generals than good ones. However the key point is that even those who do have some of these abilities to a high degree, rarely have the ability to keep adding new ones if they are unfortunate enough to be promoted beyond their level of competency.

The study of generals in any war, but particularly in the Second World War, is largely the study of who managed to cope with what level of responsibility. In many cases it is a list of people who failed at any level. In some cases it is the names of those who succeeded marvellously well at one particular level, and had the great fortune not to be moved to a different role. In the most interesting cases however, it is the study of those who did very well, often brilliantly well, at one level: only to be promoted into a role for which they had no aptitude. Some of these generals were quickly revealed by smarter and more aggressive opponents. But the most fascinating are those who never realised that they were completely over their head, and whom circumstances never, quite, brought to book.


Good managers of men; good unit commanders and tacticians; good leaders in the front line. These are things which are tested over and over at junior rank (assuming there is a front line to test one in at the right time). No one, hopefully, should get anywhere near general rank - even the ‘one star’ version of Brigadiers - without demonstrating these clearly to their peers, as well as their superiors and subordinates. Yet it is not the ability to command a few thousand men in the sort of engagement where you can physically see the entire battlefield, as in the days of Ceasar or Alexander, or Napoleon and Wellington, which encompasses the modern role of generals. Modern generals have much more diverse roles.

There are many qualities which could be listed as necessary to good generalship, and many people – some of them generals of renown in their own right – have attempted to list those qualities. Field Marshall Lord Wavell for instance, was offered the position of Commander in Chief of the Middle East in 1939, despite his relative lack of seniority: largely on the basis of the excellent national and international reputation he had gained through his lectures in the thirties. These were later collected in a book called “Generals and Generalship”. One of the fascinating comments on relative generalship during the Second World War is that while Wavell himself carried a book of poetry on campaign (often one edited by himself called ‘Other men’s Flowers”), his German opponent in North Africa – General Rommel – carried Wavell’s book on generalship. (In fact one commentator noted that Rommel may have been Wavell’s greatest disciple.)

Wavell made a good list of the basic qualities for a general in World War Two. Physical and mental robustness; calm courage and determination; character, humanity and will to win; zest for the game; common sense and knowledge. To this he added elements of: administration; command of ground and air forces; relations with staff, troops, and subordinate commanders. Most importantly he also pointed out the need for a sense of humor, and what he called ‘priviledged irrascability’, by which he meant that outbursts of temper are often admired, even expected of great leaders, whereas sarcasm is always fatal. Writing in 1943, after experience of high command, he ruefully added a need to communicate well with your political superiors as a necessity for top commanders.

This list which has not been much improved by many post war writers: though obviously elements such as intercept intelligence, combined operations, and relations with coalition partners, have increased in importance.

Unfortunately most biographers of generals fall for the undoubted strengths of character that are a necessary part of any general, and then overlook the weaknesses that make the same men unsuitable for certain roles. The resulting biographies are sincere and well argued, but ultimately unconvincing.

As an exercise, I decided it might be fun to do some ‘scientific’comparison of individuals. I have devised a more analytical division of the list, which allows for some statistical interpretation. (A rating of 10/10 for Tactical ability and Leadership being useful as a Brigadier for instance, but put in context by a rating of 5/10 for planning and 3/10 for logistics if anyone thinks such a person is suitable to command an Army Group.)

I plan to review quite a few Western Allied generals - Australian, American, British, Canadian, French, Polish and others - over the next few months. Some reviews will be non-controversial, but a lot won't be.

It will be interesting to hear the responses.


  1. Generalship is definately key,but can generalship be taught?,Does promotion confer true and genuine generalship? Or are generals born?
    These questions are important to me because decisions made by an incompetent general will result in a failure to acquire the objective and lead to preventable and avoidable loss of lives.

    1. Dear Segun,

      Excellent question. I can only answer from my own 'feel' for this, because, like you, I find a lot of the discussion in textbooks and lectures to be more propaganda (positive thinking stuff… you can will this to be...) than real. But I am a professional educator, who has worked with all age groups on many different educational goals - history, politics, music, woodwork, dance, sales, discipline, expression, etc, etc., so I will give it a go.

      I believe that if you are born with certain basic skills, and are educated and brought up to emphasize those skills, then you can be trained to be good at whatever requires the maximum application of those aptitudes. But if your personality lacks the basics, you cannot. I don't think you can ever be taught against your nature. ( I can teach music composition for instance, but my compositions are crap.)

      I know in my case that I would not make a good executive general, because I lack the self confident decisiveness (or arrogance if you wish) of someone like Brooke, Patton, Montgomery or Truscott. I prevaricate and reconsider until I am certain. No amount of training will make me less cautious and analytical. That is just who I am.

      At best I could be trained to be a good chief of staff (2IC) to an executive general, as that would be working with my natural strengths.

      Had I gone on from cadet CSM/under-officer and reserve drill instructor to the full military training (Duntroon in Australia), including staff college, and gone right through the system, I still believe I would have been born a natural 2IC, not a natural executive leader. Command decisiveness, particularly under crisis, is just not my aptitude.

      I like to think that I would even recognize that, and decline an executive appointment I thought I wasn't the best person for. (Another sign I lack of 'self confidence/arrogance' to be great?)

      On the other hand I will point out that many completely self convinced and self righteous military leaders were completely wrong about their abilities, and many many people have suffered because of it. Those who appoint generals must have good judgement too, not just accept the persons propaganda at face value. (Marshall saying of the dreadful General Fredendall 'Il like that man, he's a fighter' is one example). Which is another way of saying that the worst generals get there because those that uncritically accept them and then appoint them are idiots.

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