War Generals

War Generals #

Alexander The Great #

356 - 323 BCE Alexander was born in Macedonia, the son of Philip II. From age 13 to 16 he was taught by Aristotle, who inspired him with an interest in philosophy, medicine, and scientific investigation. At 16, Alexander defeated the Maedi, a Thracian people. Two years later he was appointed commander at the Battle of Chaeronea, and later breaking the Sacred Band of Thebes. He was 20 when his father was assassinated, then embarking on a rampage conquering tribes north of the Mediterranean through Greece, into Persia and India. Alexander’s concept of the empire was muti-national incorporating soldiers from areas he conquered. His greatest legacy was the spread of Greek culture (hellenism) throughout his empire and the establishment of major cities of learning, the most prominent Alexandria at the mouth of the Nile in Egypt. Of doubtful authenticity, untying of the Gordian Knot, a feat that guaranteed ruling all of Asia, was accomplished by simply cutting it with his sword. He died in Bablyon at the age of 33, likely from swimming in a polluted river.

Oliver Cromwell #

Cromwell rose to be a highly successful general who played an important part in defeating Charles I and (once it became clear that the king had no intention of abdicating) securing his prosecution and execution in January 1649. As the new republic’s commander-in-chief, Cromwell subdued Ireland in 1649–1650 and conclusively defeated the Scots at Worcester in September 1651. In December 1653 he was appointed to the highest office in the land, Lord Protector of England, Scotland, and Ireland. He and his son Richard, who succeeded him after his death in 1658, were the first and only nonroyals to have been England’s head of state.

Cromwell is noted for his famous assertion that:

“I had rather have a plain russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than that which you call a gentleman and is nothing else.”

The British society was ruled by a caste system that simply had no counterpart in America. Army discipline was horrifyingly brutal, and the officers were arrogant and abusive. This is best illustrated by the sheer incompetence of the British High Command in World War I.

In contrast General Washington, contended that the rabble in the American army needed to be respected, a democratic army required democratic measures. “The genius of this nation,” is not to be compared with that of the Prussians, Austrians or French.

You say to your soldier, ‘Do this!’ and he does it; but I am obliged to say, ‘This is the reason why you ought to do that’ and then he does it.”

Russian General Mikhail Kutuzov #

Tolstoy depicts Russian general Mikhail Kutuzov favorably as a patient old man who understands the limitations of human will and planning. His advice to soldiers is that the best preparation is a good night’s sleep. He believes battles are won by random factors. Most battle scenes show combat as sheer chaos.

Generals may imagine they can “anticipate all contingencies, but battle is really the result of a hundred million diverse chances” decided on the moment by unforeseeable circumstances. In war as in life, no system or model can come close to accounting for the infinite complexity of human behavior.

Following their defeat in the Crimean War, Russian leaders acknowledged that their serf army did what they were ordered to do, but no more. British and French had better esprit de corps going beyond their duty.

James Cardigan #

James Thomas Brudenell, 7th earl of Cardigan, (born, 1797,—died, 1868), British general who led the charge of the Light Brigade of British cavalry against the Russians in the Battle of Balaklava, Oct. 25, 1854, during the Crimean War—an incident immortalized in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1855).

Educated at Christ Church, Oxford, he entered the army in 1824, at a later age than was then usual, and quickly purchased promotion, becoming lieutenant colonel of the 15th Hussars by 1832. A martinet of uncertain temper, he quarreled with his officers, illegally placing one in arrest, and was censured by the ensuing court-martial and forced to give up his command (1834). But in 1836 family influence secured him the command of the 11th Light Dragoons (renamed the 11th Hussars in 1840). He inherited his father’s earldom and fortune in 1837. By spending an estimated £10,000 a year from his private purse, he made the regiment the smartest in the service (he introduced what came to be called the cardigan jacket); but again there was trouble because of his severity toward his officers, which led to a duel with one of them, Captain Harvey Tuckett, who was wounded. Cardigan faced public anger by demanding trial by his peers and won his case on a technical point of law. He retained command of his regiment until his promotion to major general in 1854.

On the outbreak of the Crimean War (1854) he was appointed commander of the Light Brigade, under his brother-in-law G.C. Bingham, 3rd Earl of Lucan, with whom he was on bad terms. His brigade saw little action before Oct. 25, 1854, when the celebrated charge of the Light Brigade took place. Although Cardigan queried the ambiguous order from Lord Raglan that originated the charge, he did not hesitate when the order was repeated but led the maneuver steadily and gallantly.

The charge so struck the imagination of the British public that Cardigan was lionized on his return to England, where he was appointed inspector general of cavalry. Later, when Lieutenant Colonel Somerset J.G. Calthorpe published a book falsely asserting Cardigan had not led the charge, he sued the author for libel but was nonsuited on a technicality. He died from injuries received by a fall from a horse.

Ulysses S. Grant #

the hero of Chattanooga was no shiny general with brass buttons, sash and sword, but a rather common-looking man, just like ‘a country storekeeper or a western farmer.’ ’evidently intent on everything but show.’

But when it came to giving orders, Grant came alive, his ‘clear and penetrating eye’ and set jaw suggesting that he could ‘dare great things, and hold on mightily, and toil terribly’ in pursuit of his objective. He might be a man of few words, but ‘he knew exactly what he wanted, and why and when he wanted it.’ Nearly every night the general could be found using the telegraph to keep tabs on his command (and the enemy), as he pondered the next move.

“Once, the colonel approached Grant with a requisition order authorizing large expenditures. Briefly reviewing the report, the general gave his approval, catching the colonel by surprise. Might the general want to ponder the matter a little longer? Was he sure he was right? Grant looked up. ‘No, I am not,’ he responded; ‘but in war anything is better than indecision. We must decide. If I am wrong, we shall soon find it out and can do the other thing. But not to decide wastes both time and money, and may ruin everything.’” Brooks D. Simpson Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865 publisher: Houghton Mifflin Co

Military Bureaucrats #

Peter Hartcher, writing On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, Norman Dixon’s surveys a century of British military disasters from the Crimean War, through the slaughterhouses of World War I to the fall of Singapore in a search for common elements that might yield an answer to the question “How could they be so hopeless?’

Like the British generals who were responsible for episodes of unfathomable misjudgment, had plenty of technical knowledge and a good deal of experience in their chosen craft. Their “incompetence cannot be attributed to ignorance or ordinary stupidity”.

Norman Dixon, professor emeritus of psychology at University College, London, and himself a former British officer, concluded that “military incompetence is more often a product of personality characteristics than of intellectual shortcomings”. And the authoritarian nature of the military structure made it prone to particular types of personality characteristics.

The personality characteristics of people drawn to an authoritarian structure?

Dixon lists these: a need for approval, fear of failure, being deaf to unwelcome information, an inclination to internal codes of acceptable behaviour, anti-intellectualism, and sensitivity to criticism. He broadly groups these as symptoms of “ego-weakness”. He describes ego-weakness as creating a “neurotic paradox in which the individual’s need to be loved breeds, on the one hand, an insatiable desire for admiration with avoidance of criticism, and, on the other, an equally devouring urge for power and positions of dominance.

“The paradox is that these needs inevitably result in behaviour so unrealistic as to earn the victim the very criticism which he has been striving so hard to avoid.”

Ego-weakness combines with authoritarian tendencies to produce ridiculous decisions. Dixon cites the British army’s stubborn insistence on using cavalry over tanks - even after World War I. Reports urging change were censored. In the 1930s, as Hitler built his 36 tank divisions, the British army ordered that the Tank Brigade should be disbanded and never reassembled.

This sort of futile stubbornness meant that losing tactics were repeated ad nauseum. The Germans marvelled at the British devotion to the suicidal full-frontal assault.

Other characteristics of the mindset? One, according to Dixon, is a disregard for the welfare of the lower ranks; that so long as the officers were comfortable, the commanders were content to see the troops suffer and die.

They can contemplate this aphorism of one of the better British commanders, Field-Marshal Lord Slim:

‘‘There are no bad regiments, only bad officers.”

The authoritarian mindset does not welcome creativity or differences of opinion. Dixon writes:

“When all that is natural, creative, flexible, warm and outgoing in the human spirit becomes crushed and constricted, such qualities of leadership as compassion, bold decisions and military flair give way to conformity, sycophantism, indecision and fear of failure.”

Instructive though the Dixon analysis might be, it does not offer much hope of recovery with its current structure. Why not? Because, according to Dixon, “it is a sad feature of authoritarian organisations that their nature inevitably militates against the possibility of learning from experience through the apportioning of blame”.

They are, he says, “past masters at deflecting blame. They do so by denial, by rationalisation, by making scapegoats … the net result is that no real admission of failure or incompetence is ever made by those who are really responsible.”

Finally, Dixon explains why British governments tolerated - and sometimes even promoted - generals who were responsible for some of the worst military failures. Why did they perpetuate a system where officers could buy their commissions, instead of requiring merit, for instance?

The answer is that the overriding concern of the British political class, in the face of popular revolutions across the Channel, was that the army remained loyal. So the political leadership was prepared to tolerate the most dreadfully incompetent generals as long as they were loyal to the status quo of the monarchy, the aristocracy and the class system.

……… The British corps commander, the incompetent and arrogant General Sir Richard Haking, wrote of the virtual destruction of the Australian 5th Division and the British 61st Division at Fromelles: “I think the attack, although it failed, has done both Divisions a great deal of good.” When Haking wrote these words, there were at least 1000 Diggers from the 5th Division and an equal number of Tommies from the 61st lying wounded, unattended and under fire in no man’s land.

Dwight D. Eisenhower #

Dwight D. Eisenhower was the third of seven sons of David Jacob and Ida Elizabeth (Stover) Eisenhower from Abilene, Kansas, where their forebears had settled as part of a Mennonite colony. When he entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, he left his mother, a pacifist, in tears.

He was a good student and rose quickly in the ranks.

During World War I Eisenhower commanded a tank training centre, was promoted to captain, and received the Distinguished Service Medal. The war ended just before he was to be sent overseas.

When the United States entered World War II in December 1941, Eisenhower was rapidly promoted from brigadier general to major general in March 1942 to be commander of U.S. troops in Europe. Eisenhower’s rapid advancement, was due his knowledge of military strategy, talent for organization and his ability to persuade, mediate, and get along with others.

In July 1942 he successfully headed, Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of French North Africa. A full general since that February, Eisenhower then directed the amphibious assault of Sicily and the Italian mainland, which resulted in the fall of Rome on June 4, 1944.

On December 24, 1943, he was appointed supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force. On June 6, 1944, he gambled on a break in bad weather and gave the order to launch the Normandy Invasion, the largest amphibious attack in history.

Eisenhower was given a hero’s welcome upon returning to the United States for a visit in June 1945. In the fall of 1950 President Truman asked him to become supreme commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Fifteen months later he resigned to run for President of the United States and served from 1952 to 1960.

Eisenhower urged economy and honesty in government and promised to visit Korea to explore the possibilities for ending the Korean War.

His largest challenge came from Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin. In part to preserve party unity, Eisenhower had refused to publicly condemn Senator McCarthy’s charges of communist influence within the government. Although privately Eisenhower expressed his distaste for the senator, at times he seemed to encourage the attacks of McCarthyites. Hundreds of federal employees were fired under his expanded loyalty-security program.

He and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, worked hard at achieving peace by constructing collective defense agreements and by threatening the Soviet Union with “massive retaliatory power”; both strategies were designed to check the spread of communism. Another strategy was unknown to the public at the time but was heavily criticized in later years: the use of the Central Intelligence Agency in covert operations to overthrow governments in Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954).

His domestic policies devolved more power to the states and his most enlightened social reform in 1957 where he forced all-white schools in Little Rock to admit black students.

Eisenhower made the decision to limit the American role in the Indochina crisis between France and the guerrillas led by Ho Chi Minh to pushing for a partition of Vietnam into a communist North and a non-communist South. Excerpts from Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

General William Holmes #

One of World War I’s greatest generals who died at the front on July 1,1917 when a stray shrapnel passed through his chest. He established his reputation in the Boer War as a superior officer to the petty British Generals.

During the Gallipoli he again became aware of the appalling futility of sending men to charge against modern rifle and machine gun fire where more than half were immediately mown down. He experienced the sheer folly, brutality, inhumanity and futility of war.

Holmes was famous for going to the frontline during a battle to ascertain for himself the situation. He believed officers, who had the power of command in critical times should make decisions based on reality.

Retrospective analysis of this “War to end all Wars” reveals not only the utter incompetence of the High Command, but their sheer callousness in regard to the wanton wasteful slaughter of thousands upon thousands of young men blindly sent “over the top” in futile assaults against impregnable defences. 60,000 men were sacrifices recklessly and needlessly on the first day of the Battle of the Somme for no appreciable strategic or tactical gain.

The tunnel – vision idiocy of those in charge of the “War to end all Wars”, those who heartlessly exploited our boys patriotism. Safely ensconced in their bunkers fifty miles behind enemy lines, the High Command had little idea of the conditions at the front and what they were ordering their troops to do. At the end of the war, generals, on visiting the trenches questioned, “did we send men to fight in these conditions?”

Many Generals wanted to go back to traditional warfare and cut funds to tanks and petrol, getting more horses and hay.

Allan Clark remarked:

“The troops were Lions; Lions led by Donkeys”.

British Field-Marshal Lord Slim claimed:

‘‘There are no bad regiments, only bad officers.”

John Monash #

John Monash is considered one of the war’s outstanding commanders. Monash was born in Melbourne on 27 June 1865.

Monash was a driven young man, ambitious and intelligent. He worked on the construction of the Princes Bridge in Melbourne and in 1888 was placed in charge of constructing a new railway even though he had yet to complete his degree. Having long since decided to combine engineering with a military career, was promoted to captain in the Garrison Artillery that year. In 1897 Monash was promoted to major in the North Melbourne Battery and served there for 11 years.

He gained promotion to lieutenant colonel in the Australian Intelligence Corps in 1908 in 1913 took command of the 13th Infantry Brigade.

After the outbreak of war, Monash was given command of the AIF’s 4th Infantry Brigade, landing at Gallipoli on 26 April 1915. In July he was promoted to brigadier. Despite having encountered some criticism for his performance on Gallipoli, Monash took his brigade to France in June 1916. He became a major general in July and took command of the 3rd Division. The division’s first major battle, Messines, was hailed as a great success. Further success followed and in May 1918, Monash was promoted to lieutenant general and given command of the Australian Corps. His first battle in this role, Hamel, of which he wrote:

“the operation is a striking example of the success which invariably results from careful preparation and coordinated action: and will serve as a model and the standard of the fighting efficiency of the Australian corps”.

Monash remained in command through the victorious battles in the last months of the war. He was an innovative leader who earned high praise from many leading political and military figures.

After spending eight months in London overseeing the repatriation of the AIF, Monash was welcomed home in Melbourne by an enthusiastic public on Boxing Day 1919. An advocate for returned soldiers, Monash also held a range of high-level positions. His opinions were widely sought and he became a leading figure in Melbourne’s Jewish community.

Monash died of heart disease in Melbourne on 8 October 1931 and was given a state funeral attended by some 3000,000 mourners. From the Australian War Memorial

Australian Soldiers #

In 1918 an average of 9 per 1,000 Australian soldiers in Europe resided in prison.

Among Canadians, New Zealanders and South Africans there was an average of 1.6 per 1,000 men behind bars.

Field-Marshall Douglas Haig was convinced this was due to the low standard of discipline among the colonial divisions.

General Haig writing to his wife about the colonials describes the Australians as brave and daring, but uncouth, dirty, undisciplined, disrespectful to the officers and unruly.

Then he adds: The Canadians are worse.

The Australians had modes of behaviour which conflicted totally with the British Army’s habits. In February 1918 Haig wrote in a letter to his wife:

“We have had to separate the Australians into Convalescent Camps of their own, because they were giving so much trouble when along with our men and put such revolutionary ideas into their heads.”

Haig was convinced that a great deal of the problems were caused by General Birdwood’s relaxed disciplinary methods. Sir William Birdwood was Imperial (English officer who commanded the I ANZAC Corps and later the Australian Corps) and he never found great favour in Haig’s eyes.

The truth is that Birdwood was one of the very few senior British officers who possessed the ’touch’ to command Australians, the perception necessary to extract their qualities.

Another ’troublemaker’ was the Australian brigadier-general Thomas William Glasgow. Passed into a proverb are his remarks when he was ordered to attack Villers-Bretonneux, a French village vital to the integrity of the whole Allied line. General Heneker told him that the attack was to be made from Cachy.

Glasgow, who had studied the scene, said he could not do it that way, because that would cost too many lives.

“Tell us what you want us to do, Sir,” he said, “but you must let us do it our own way.”

General Heneker was flabbergasted, especially when Glasgow also said that he wanted the time of the attack changed. British army officers were not supposed to argue with their superiors. But after some arguing it was settled that the attack should be made as Glasgow desired (the attack became a resounding success)

Another important difference between Australian and British troops was that the Aussie officers explained extensively to their men the objectives of the battle they were about to engage in. Even ordinary soldiers then knew the strategy that was behind it. When they became cut-off they still knew what to do, what the goal was.

Unlike their British colleagues, common Australian soldiers were not treated like ignorant donkeys, but like individuals who will function better in a team when they know their collective aim. The Australian lieutenant-general Sir John Monash, successor of Birdwood, said:

“Very much and very stupid comment has been made upon the discipline of the Australian soldier. That was because the very conception and purpose of discipline have been misunderstood. It is, after all, only a means to an end, and that end is the power to secure co-ordinated action among a large number of individuals for the achievement of a definite purpose. It does not mean lip service, nor obsequious homage to superiors, nor servile observance of forms and customs, nor a suppression of individuality… the Australian Army is a proof that individualism is the best and not the worst foundation upon which to build up collective discipline.”

Perhaps due to its convict heritage, Australians have a

“healthy disrespect for vaunted authority”.

George V #

George V, visits Australian troops at the front:

Suddenly, however, amid the tired cheers and gasps of admiration just to be in the King’s presence, a voice rings out.

‘‘Good day, George! Hallo, George! How are you, George!’’

The King, ‘‘utterly taken by surprise’’ at such familiarity as he has never heard in his public life, turns to see who it is.


It is a garrulous Australian, ‘‘a bronzed brown face and dark humorous eyes … a bold funny fellow’’ who has celebrated his surprising arrival at Pozieres by having a few drinks at a nearby estaminet — and likely more than a few. In response, the Tommies are ‘‘awe struck at such cheek and looked as though they expected someone to be shot’’, while the other Australians mostly laugh at his sheer audacity.

The King — to the amazement of the Tommies — joins in the laughter, which relieves the tension somewhat, and His Majesty is soon gone in the mist. But not the merry Australian. For some time afterwards, he holds his own court of commoners on the corner, bursting forth on republicanism versus royalty …

Another anecdote records a British Sargent summoning his Australian troops in order to reprimand them.


The Cook has gone on strike! We want to know who called the cook a bastard?

An unidentified Ocker voice rings out from the back:

“What we want to know is, who called the bastard a cook?