(The following reflection on the value of experience will no doubt annoy some people for its many oversimplifications. But I think the point is worth making. )
Contention: American senior generals in World War II were as bad, and for the same reason, as British senior generals in World War I.
Before leaping in I will comment that I have a fair amount of sympathy for some recent re-assessments of the Great War myths of ‘lions led by donkeys’, which imply that the appalling losses on the Western Front in World War One were simply because the generals were so hopeless theat they could not imagine any other tactic than attrition.
Fundamentally the fault with this view is that it excuses the politicians from forcing the generals into impossible situations, and then making them do something they don’t want to do.
Democratic societies are invariably going to be unprepared for war, and inevitably the poor bloody soldiers are going to pay the price for the unpreparedness. It is just annoying that the sort of politicians, social commentators, and ‘historians’, who have spent the whole interwar periods arguing for cuts in military spending; then spend the whole war period screaming about the results; and the postwar period blaming the officers who were opposed to such cuts all along.
Otherwise competent generals then spend years fighting impossible odds and losing more often that they can win, in circumstances that are usually beyond their control. (Usually to have similar, or even less competent, generals repalce them whe the politicians lose patience, and go on to receive the undeserved glory of the victories that come once the nations war machine is finally properly geared for action.)
The worst losses of the British army on the Western Front, in the dreadful Loos battles of 1915 and Somme battles of 1916 for instance, were not because the generals running the show wanted such a campaign right then, but because the polticians said they had to do it.
The unavoidable fact was that the French Army was close to collapse, so the British army had to provide counter pressure to keep the Germns occupied while the French recovered a bit (morale as much as materiel). There was also the fear that Russia might pull out of the war if the Allies did not do something more.
So French, and later Haig were forced to commit unprepared and inadequately trained troops to an offensive that most of the British generals expected to fail, or at best to achieve only marginal results. Tens of thousands of men were sacrificed because the poiticians said it was necessary to keep France going.
And why were the troops inadequately trained? Largely because the politicians (and I will include Kitchener here, as he was by this time a politician with a military background rather than a real general), had based their recruiting campaign on a trendy ‘new model’ citizens army, rather than use the well developed existing territorial reserve system that would have done a far better job. They new enthusiastic troops were considered incapable of the traditional fire and movement approach of professional troops (the type that the Germans reintroduced in 1918 with their ‘commando units’, and the British army was able to copy soon after with properly trained and combat experienced personnel). Instead the enthusiastic amateurs were considered too badly trained to do more than advance in long straight lines… straight into the meat grinder.
Having said that the generals blame for the results should be at the very least shared with their political masters, I am still willing to express dissatisfaction with the approach of Haig and many of his senior commanders. They were Chateau Generals in approach and in attitude. They drew lines on maps without adequately considering the terrain, issued impossible instructions without looking at the state of the ground, and ran completely inadequate communications that were far from capable of keeping track of, or controlling, a modern battlefield.
So I am confident to say that many of the casualties were their fault too. Inadequate training was at least partly their fault for not correcting. The inadequate tactical deployments of the battles they were forced to fight were at least equally their fault. The failures of communication which vastly increased casualties were mostly their fault. The failure to look at alternative operations that might achieve similar or better results were almost entirely their fault.
It was noticeable later in the war that the more successful armies were commanded by competent and imaginative officers who insisted on detailed planning; intensive and specific tactical planning and operationsl training (down to practicing assualts on purpose built life size models); and very close control of operations to ensure success. They had usually learned the hard way, and had matured as experienced and pro-active leaders.
Of course some of this improvement was simply advances in technology. Tanks to breakthrough; better artillery fire plans to support and reduce casualties; air observation to enhance control and assess responses; better communications (including radio’s) to facilitate flexibility on the ground; and a generally better trained and more experienced soldier; with much more skilled officers. It all helped. But a lot came down to the attitude of the generals who believed that you got up front, found out the truth, stayed in close contact, and reacted to changed circumstances as immediately as possible.
So while it is unfair for Haig to get the whole blame for the Somme in 1916, it is also unfair for him to get too much of the credit for the work of the junior generals who ran the front lines units so effeeciently later in the war while he was still isolated in his Chateau.
As a result the best senior generals of World War II had gone through this learning process in WWI, and had learned the necessary skills. They trained intensively, planned meticulously, practiced assualt techniques assidously, stayed near the front to respond quickly, and considered communication and control as important as fire power and overwhelming force.
This concept of the Great War as a nursery training ground for the Great Commanders of World War II applies to German, British and Commonwealth, French and even Italian officers impartially. Long combat experience leads to working out practical solutions to real problems, as distinct from theory at military academies. (Though all armies had as many failures as successes from this process… sSome people just can't learn.)
On the German side men like Rommel are a good example. He commanded his Division and later his Corps from a tank turret, and his still later Army and Army Group from a light Recce plane. He had a main headquarters under his COS futher back to co-ordinate things, but real decisions were made right at the front line.
Montgomery is a similar example for the Allies. He too had a main HQ run by a COS, and commanded from as close to the front as possible. Beyond that, all his experiences through a long and hard Great War shaped his approach to the later war. In the Second, he repeatedly refused to launch any attack with inadequately trained troops. (Note that for him this applied all through the war, but he was lucky enough to only hold senior command at vital points after the tide was turning to allow the allies such luxury.) He not only planned operations to the last detail, but whenever possible went and visited every unit in his command to ensure that every soldier understood their part in the operation. (To the extent that later in the war many people justly complained of his overcaution… But he knew that his reputation with his soldiers was based on this very pedantic-ness, and knew not to risk that.) He insisted his HQ be joint with his Air support HQ whenever possible. He stayed as close to the front as possible, and had roving recce officers whose sole job was to keep him informed of the minutaie affecting every unit in his command.
Montgomery, like Rommel, was in every way the opposite of a Chateau general.
In fact the vast majority of British and German generals who had adeqaute experience from the Great War behaved this way.
Which brings us to the Americans, and their lack of Great War experience.
The Americans arrived on the Western Front when the war was already won. Only a few thousand were there for the last big German push, and by the time the Allies were moving to their final offensives with real American numbers involved, the German army was a broken reed. Which means that most American officers had only a few weeks of combat experience, and almost all of it against a failing army which had little resilience left to offer the type of resistance that might have caused the inexperienced American officers to have to reconsider their theories from their quicky officer training courses. Even the professional military officers received, at best, only a couple of hints that their ideas might not be inevitably effective against a stronger opponent. Certainly not enough time to learn how to analyse and adapt to circumstances in serious combat.
Which is why the majority of highly recognised American higher commanders in World War II appear to be chateau generals.
Consider the differences. The Americans who get the most acclaim for WWII are men like Marshall, Eisenhower, Bradley, MacArthur and Nimitz. Chateau generals operating hundreds if not thousands of miles from the front. By contrast their exact British equivalents who ran the COS or theatre commands – Brooke (British COS to Marshall as American one), Wilson (who was Supreme Allied Commander in the Med after Eisenhower), Mountbatten (South East Asia theatre commander to MacArthur's South West Pacific) and Horton (an Atlantic theatre commander to Nimitz's Pacific) – are usually only known to specialists.
By contrast the most famous British (and German) generals were the ‘lead from the front’ types. Alexander, Montgomery, Slim and O’Connor (or Rommel and Guderian). While the American equivalents – Eichelberger, Truscott, Simpson and Ridgeway – are again almost unkonown except by specialists.
The interesting thing here is that we do not know the names of the American desk soldiers because they were better than the British ones. Quite the contrary.
Brooke was a unique and brilliant COS whose well reasoned strategy became the core of the Allied victory. Marshall was merely an exceptional administrative beaurocrat whose strategic and tactical sense often left even his greatest accolyte – Eisenhower – despairing of his understanding of modern warfare. (See Ike’s response – in 'Dear General' to Marshall’s suggeestions about how to use paratroops at D-Day as an example of his growing frustration with his bosses ignorance.)
Actually this is missing some of the point about the best British soldiers being experienced front line operatives. Brooke was a front line soldier all through the Great War, and one of the foremost technical thinkers of the interwar period. He had been chosen to command both Infantry Brigades and the experimental Armoured ‘Mobile’ Brigade despite being ‘only a gunner’. He had starred as a Corps commander in the retreat to Dunkirk, and had personally reorganised and reinvigroated the home oarmies during the invasion scares. A soldier further from a ‘chateau’ approach is hard to imagine. Whereas Eisenhower never directly commmanded any troops in combat, and only ever directed army and army groups commanders from a considerable distance. (Marshall had actually led a platoon during the Philippines first war of independence against the Americans, and was a training officer and then staff planner in France in WWI, so he had less excuse then Ike for some of his foolishness.)
Eisenhower’s mistakes in theatre commands in Italy and France were possibly no worse in results than Wilson’s ongoing problems with Greece (he led the ‘forlorn hopes’ of both 1941 and 1944 there), but Eisenhower failed far more spectacularly with the Italian surrender, the Broad Front strategy, and the Bulge, than Wilson ever did with far inferior resources. MacArthur’s failures are more readily compared with Percival than the successes of a man like Leese, and Nimitz is often referred to as one of the great captains of history, for defeating a navy that repeatedly sabotaged its own efforts in the Pacific theatre. (Often by people who haven’t seemed to have ever heard of Max Horton’s much harder victory against the ruthlessly efficient U-boat campaign in the Atlantic theatre).
Similarly it is fair to say that the American front line commanders most people have never heard of were hardly inferior to their famous British contemporaries. Eichelberger was as good a commander, and as good a co-operator in Allied operations, as Alexander ever was. Truscott was probably at least the equal of Montgomery, given the opportunity. (I suspect possibly even better actually, but who can say?) Simpson, in his brief few months at the front, impressed many British officers who had served for years under men as good as Slim. And Ridgeway showed in his few months of active operations a level of skill and competence (not necessarily the same thing) that far more experienced men like O’Connor did not surpass.
Why do we hear about the American chateau generals in preference to their front line leaders? And why do we hear about the British front line leaders in preference to their back office superiors. I would say it is because the British had been through a learning process in WWI that the Americans had not.
The prime examples of American chateau leadership are obvious. MacArthur got away with it the first time (Phillipines 1), because his generalship was so bad that his originally very isolated bunker was soon under direct fire. (Not that he ever stuck his head out. ‘Dugout Dug’ was not a term of endearment by his men.) By contrast Fredendell’s exotic bunker hundreds of miles behind the front was quickly exposed at Kasserine Pass. (Fredendell was a Marshall favourite. I”I like that man, he’s a fighter”…. Blind leading the blind?)
But the top American generals remained chateau types throughout the war. MacArthur ran his front line in 1942-4 from Melbourne… sometimes Brisbane (about the distance fron the front as London is from Egypt, or later Rome.) Eisenhowers HQ in France was literally in a Chateau, and one so remote and so isolated from modern communications that Haig would have been embarrassed. (This aside from the fact that this HQ was a cesspool of conniving backstabbing that – according to a number of senior Americans in quoted in Eisenhower's Leiutenant's – quickly seemed less concerned with actually finishing the war with the Germans, or the possiblity of their counter attacking – than with preparing Ike’s run for President.)
Bradley was so cut off from his command for the bulk of the French campaign that during the Bulge the 1st and 9th armies (most of his units) had to be handed over to Montgomery (much to Bradley’s fury). Frankly, his communications were little better than Haig’s had been, and his knowledge and understanding of the front apparently only marginally better.
Clarke actually spent time right at the front, but not really by plan. His invading army was no more supposed to have seen his HQ in the front line at Salerno, than had MacArthurs bunker been supposed to be there. But the failures of his command, particularly his corps leader – see Dawley and remember Fredendell – left his first army command resembling Bradley directing traffic. He was very lucky that his second corps – British 10th – was commanded by a much more experienced soldier - McCreery – who could be safely trusted to run his own battles. Carlo D'Este blames most of the poor planning and higher leadership on Clarke, though everyone acknowledged that he worked hard once on the ground. But his latter effort when he let an entire German Army escape – against Alexander's direct orders – so he could have the glory of leading a parade into Rome, should probably have seen him shot (or at least very least awarded an Iron Cross).
Bradley’s subordinate at 1st Army, Hodges, also ran a magnificent HQ complex, but apparently not quite such a long way from the front to seem safe. When Montgomery’s assistants went to consult with him directly because his communications seemed to have failed during the German attack at the Bulge, they found a magnificently appointed set of buildings for an Army commander (compared to their own Army Group Commanders field HQ in a dozen trucks.) Unfortunately they were not able to find anyone to talk to because the army HQ had retreated in apparent panic, being out of communication with their units and allies for many hours. Fortunately (!) they had left all the maps on the walls so anyone passing through could tell what 1st Army thought it was doing. (Montgomery’s officers were happy to take the maps away, both to inform their boss, and also because they though it might be wise… just in case of the, admittedly highly unlikely, chance that any Germans might actually turn up! As was fairly predictable, they never got close.)
By contrast one of Alexander’s biographies begins with an anecdote about a junior officer near the front in Italy. Alex drove up in a jeep and stopped to chat. The Germans, realising their was a senior officer present, started an artillery barrage. Eventually the junior officer suggested Alex should go somewhere safer. He unconcernedly agreed, got back in his jeep, and drove further towards the front. This again was an Army Group Commander, which can be compared with the most famous example of a supposedly ‘lead from the front’ American – Patton. Many of his 3rd Army soldiers comment that he was seen less and less at the front as the war went on, and that he was quick to make himself scarce if artillery fire was active anywhere in the vicinity.
The fact that British Army Group commanders were regularly at the front, whereas American Army Group, or Army, or even Corps (sometimes even Division) commanders were very rarely (if at all) seen anywhere near the front: can probably be considered a direct result of British officers having experience from World War I that American officers did not have.
So let me return to my comment about British WWI chateau generals: “They were Chateau Generals in approach and in attitude. They drew lines on maps without adequately considering the terrain, issued impossible instructions without looking at the state of the ground, and ran completely inadequate communications that were far from capable of keeping track of, or controlling, a modern battlefield.” Would you say that this described Marshall, Eisenhower, MacArthur, Bradley and Hodges? Could honestly you deny such a charge?
One specific example of inexperience that has always amused me is Patton’s famous line about getting enough petrol which would allow him to go through the Germans like ‘shit through a goose’. It is much quoted by admiring people who never check what happened next. He made the comment only hours before his army approached a little dot on the map called ‘Metz Forts’. The US Army had made a huge thing about map reading between the wars, and Eisenhower and Bradley spent much of the interwar period competing at ‘map reading’, but apparently no one in Patton (or Bradley or Eisenhowers HQ’s) thought to consider what the word ‘forts’ might mean. This is particularly surprising as the Americna Army in WWI had been near the famous forts that had broken the German army over two dreadful years, and many Americans had toured the resulting battlefields.
So within hours of the ‘shit through a goose’ speech, 3rd Army arrived at the Metz Forts... where they stayed for several months. In fact so many attacks on the forts failed, that Patton left the front in an apparent snitt, and spent a few weeks consolling himself in Paris. (As an aside it is amusing to note that the first American assualt on the forts failed with considerable casualties despite the fact that the forts were actually empty… the Germans had lost the keys.)
The Metz Forts debacle (like the later Hurtzgen Forest debacle) is as clear an example of WWI style chateau generalship as can be found. And Patton’s response – at this, the only occasion in his career when he faced a position determinedly held by even the sad remnants of a defeated army, and the only time when he had to attempt the sort of carefully planned battle that he sneered at Montgomery for over planning – was in no way superior to the worst of the ‘donkeys’ of the Great War.
[Note that the equivalent British debacle during that campaign was when the Canadian Army took Antwerp undamaged, but then stopped for a rest before cutting off the retreating Germans. The Germans quickly fortified the riverbanks leading to the port, keeping it out of use for months. This was a clear example of the Canadian generals inexperience, and Montgomery is at fault here for being too involved in the last attempt to break the Germans before Christmas – Market Garden – and not paying close enough attention to one of his Army commanders, who was not supervising his Corps commander, who was not chasing his divisional commander adequately. (No one is imune from such glitches in a fast moving campaign. Inexperience any where down the chain can cause big problems. But it is noticeable that Crerar’s failure did not get him the public acclaim Patton has enjoyed?) Crerar was a 'political appointment' by the Canadians (an 'able administrator', but militarily 'mediocre' according to most) who Montgomery considered to be as inferior in experience and attitude as many of the American ‘chateau leaders’ he would have put in the same basket. By contrast Monty was delighted when the more competent front line leaders – the Canadian Simonds and the American Simpson – were assigned to him instead. As in the cases of the Australian General Morshead or the Polish General Anders, Montgomery only cared about ability, not nationality. But as was the case with the Americans, all too many generals in most armies, including the British and Gemran armies, lacked experience or ability.]
Please note that some genuinely talented officers always arise who can overcome the limitations of their lack of experience and inadequate education and training. (Eichelberger, Truscott and Ridgeway can take big bows here.) Equally, some limited individuals failed to take advantage of their own experience and the many intense training programs that they attended without appearing to take in. (Gort, Percival and Ironside spring to mind.)
But a number of otherwise inexperienced and unprepared generals made successes of themselves through careful mentoring by skilled superiors, so it is also important to note when mentoring failed.
Gort failed in France not because he did not have the history or the ability to adapt (though he was a slow learner), but because he was thrown in too deep too fast. Similarly Ritchie failed as an Army Commander through inadequate mentoring, but later succeeded as a Corps commander through careful rebuilding by his superiors. Bradley seemed to have the makings of a good corps commander during the single month he operated on the front line in Sicily, but apeeared out of his depth as an army commander at D-Day (doing his best work as a pseudo corps commander directing traffic during the break out), and was completely out of his depth as an Army Group commander thereafter. He was at his best working under Patton and in reasonable comunication with Montgomery, but clearly needed more direction from Monty during D-Day (not that he was happy to have it by then).
Unfortunately there was no knowledgeable American who could mentor him, except possibly men like Eichelberger and Truscott, whose superior competence and experience inadequate chateau men like Macarthur and Clarke were happy to hide from inadequate chateau men like Marshall and Eisenhower.
In fact it is noticeable that the best Americans generals were a select group of those who had not only seen real – if limited – combat in the Great War, but led advances in training interwar (in opposition to the types who had come home and “reverted to practicing to fight the Indians”), and then done a long slow apprenticeship in combat from 1942 until 1945. Again, Eichelberger and Tuscott can take a bow, while it is noticeable that there were men who had similar backgrounds but failed to learn from them and never improved, like Fredendell and MacArthur.
Yet despite all these qualifications, the principle is clear. The British and Commonwealth armies, with a huge amount of World War One experience, had at least some success in learning from that, and the majority of Britain’s succesful and recognized leaders of the Second war were ‘lead from the front’ men. The US army didn’t have that experience, and its soldiers suffered from the sort of Chateau generalship that had blighted the British in the Great War.
In fact, just to stir the pot a bit more, I will go a step further in direct comparisons. Marshall was the Kitchener of World War Two (for being more of an interfering politician than a serious military leader – his 'replacement' policy being the mirror image disaster to Kitchener's 'new army'); Eisenhower the Haig (for failing to see any alternative to broad front attrition), MacArthur the person Churchill was accused of being at Gallipoli (an overambitious poseur whose plans led to pointless disasters): and Clarke the Nixon (for sacrificing genuine military success for pointless political prestige).