Lions Led by Donkeys

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


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. 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. Many 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.


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.’

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...
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