Were any WWI generals well liked by their men?

On either side? In WWI there’s a common aloof image of generals frittering away the lives of their men in the horrendous squalor of no man’s land whilst living in comfort and safety, a mixture of callousness and incompetence probably best epitomised in the horrendous Italian Chief of Staff Luigi Cadorna.

Were there many generals who had the opposite reputation as a commander concerned with the condition of his men and who tried to keep casualties to an absolute minimum?

Perhaps Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, German general in Africa, who led a various successful guerrilla campaign for the entire war and treated his white and black personnel with respect.

One WWI general who is noted for concern for his troops was Horace Smith-Dorrien.

“Unlike many senior generals of the era, Smith-Dorrien could speak to troops with ease and was greatly admired by regimental officers. In prewar training he wanted “individual initiative and intelligence” in British soldiers…Smith-Dorrien annoyed the French – with whom he had still been on relatively cordial terms at the end of the South African War – by abolishing the pickets which trawled the streets for drunk soldiers, by more than doubling the number of playing fields available to the men, by cutting down trees, and by building new and better barracks.”

His reputation for behaving kindly towards his men (for the time, anyway) was probably enhanced by being relieved of command early in the war (with the legendary words “'Orace, yer for 'ome”, by a commanding officer who had trouble with his 'H’s).

William “Birdy” Birdwood, who commanded the ANZAC forces at Gallipoli and afterward, partly because of his courage (He’d go up to the front lines and talk to the men), and partly because of his attempts to promote Australian and New Zealand officers to leadership positions in ANZAC.

Ernest Barbot, who was killed at the Second Battle of Artois was also pretty popular.

For that matter, General Haig was pretty popular with his men.

General Charles Townsend of the Mesopotamian campaign in present-day Iraq. He was beloved by his men, which was too bad, since he was an incompetent glory hound who botched the operation from before it started and after it ended in disaster. He treated his men well before the operation began and they liked him all through it.

Philippe Petain was liked by his troops at Verdun. He made sure they were rotated out regularly and did all he could to support them. He also made it clear to them that he cared about their conditions. Note: he wanted to fall back to save lives, but was ordered by the command to hold the city at any cost. It was the same thing in WWII, where he was forced into an impossible situation and tried to make the best of it, but, of course, surrendering to the Nazis was not a good move for your reputation.

Thanks for the replies, I’ve only heard of Lettow-Vorbeck and Dorien Smith but didn’t know the ins and outs. Haig is an interesting case in that he was mourned by the nation when he died but is also known today as the ‘Butcher of the Somme’, odd how reputations can do a complete 180 even when you’ve been dead for decades. Also well pointed out that well liked is not necessarily synonymous with competency.

I don’t have much evidence but I’m sure that Pershing was well respected by his men. His refusal to lend them out piecemeal to the French and British was surely a popular choice. Also Generals who win tend to be popular.

John Monash. One of the best generals of the war and also highly popular with the men under his command. Also Australian.

Marshall Petain had the reputation to take great care of his men, during WWI (well, by comparison with his predecessors behaviour, at least). One of the reason why he was held in high esteem.

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I think there’s a misconception that WWI generals were callous, bloody-minded, incompetent butchers.

Yes, there were incompetent ones like Cadorna, but on the whole, they were doing the best with what they had, and were basically trying to figure out the hard way how to handle a series of technological advances that had occurred, without appropriate changes in tactical and strategic doctrine.

In other words, when WWI started, they were still basically fighting US Civil War style, but at longer ranges due to the range of the smokeless powder cartridge-firing, bolt-action rifles. But machine guns and quick-firing artillery firing HE shells had come into use, and made those old-school tactics virtually suicidal. So they dug trenches, much as their American predecessors had at Cold Harbor and Petersburg, and had used ad-hoc ones at Shiloh, Fredericksburg and several other battles. The results were even more bloody, although more evenly distributed, due to the effectiveness of attacking artillery. So they tried many different tactics to break that stalemate- rolling barrages, stormtroops, poison gas, huge mines, and none really worked until the first effective deployment of the tank in November 1917 at Cambrai.

The generals were trying, but they were having to figure it out as they went, and it was just ugly attrition warfare for most of the war. Put another way, what else were they going to do at Verdun or the Somme?

I generally agree. Although the Germans in WWI contributed at least as much to tactical advances of infantry used in WWII as the Allies. For example Rommel’s interwar book ‘Infantry Attacks’, which brought him to Hilter’s attention, is a (generally historically accurate) account of successful tactics his Wurttemburg Mountain Battalion used in mid/late-WWI (the ideas reached their fruition in the units operations in Romania and Italy mainly) which were very ‘WWII’ in style. And the Germans had considerable success with their infiltration and ‘storm trooper’ tactics, largely without armor on a larger scale on the Western front in their offensive of 1918. That offensive failed, but even in WWII German infantry probably remained superior to Anglo-American on average man for man to the end of the war or nearly, and failed. Allied infantry quality was close enough with their numerical and general material advantage, and qualitative superiority in artillery in WWII (less importantly German armor was still superior throughout WWII) to make the German situation hopeless.

But what exactly worked in WWI to avoid stalemates isn’t the key point because WWII combat would sometimes settle into similar stalemates (repeatedly in Italy, on the Franco/Benelux/German border in Sept '44-Feb '45, etc). WWII generals still had to commit infantry to pretty much unthinkable losses by today’s standards (even if not as large in WWII as I) to make any progress, even copying the best of German and Entente tactics of WWI, and even with the greater maturity of armored forces. And there’s a disproportionate English-speaking world emphasis on the Western Front in WWI because of the large later economic, social and political consequences of the terrible manpower losses, especially in Britain but even in the US to some degree. If you compare all WWI fronts to all WWII ones, there isn’t as stark a difference in mobility v stalemate as when, as sometimes happens, one just compares the Western Front in WWI to the German 1940 offensive against France/Benelux then just the rapid movement portions of the Allied campaign in Europe in July-September '44 and March-April '45.

Part of the problem was one of perception. If a general is to maintain whatever control he can over a large battlefield, which by the time of WW1 could be tens of miles across, it makes sense for that general to stay well back from the front, located in a place he can take in all of the relevant communications and issue orders.

However, if the troops never see him at the front, the perception grows that they are being used as cannon fodder in the generals’ experiments in tactics.

Now, if a general is to live and work well behind the front, it only makes sense that he live in relative comfort - but again, while the troops at the front are living in rat-infested trenches …

The difficulty is that the generals are not seen as sharing in the risks and discomforts, which had a bad effect on morale.

But the generals in other modern wars also did not share in the discomforts. Perhaps brigadier generals did, but it’s not like Grant and Lee were in the front lines. Nor were the big time generals of World War II usually under fire, some unusual exceptions aside.

That doesn’t change the fact Grant and Lee were admired by their men, as well as many WWII generals.

Sure, but above a certain level, a general could spend all his time visiting troops in the field, and neither accomplish his real job, nor manage to visit all the troops. Haig, for example, commanded some 2 million men or so at the BEF"s largest, for example.

You see similar situations of technology and doctrine not being aligned throughout history, with correspondingly horrific losses. The American 8th Air Force in WWII is a little-known example. Everyone knows that we had B-17 bombers, and that things were rough, but few people know or realize that more men were killed and wounded in the bomber offensive than were lost by the entire US Marine Corps during the war. Some 10% more or less of US killed-in-action were from the 8th Air Force alone. A whole bunch of the US Civil War early bloodshed was due to trying to use Napoleonic tactics with and against rifled muskets, which increased the effective range of the infantry something like two or threefold.

It’ll probably be seen again- maybe someone fighting autonomous robot forces, or something like that.

Hell, Donitz was respected by his men - the German U-boat force - and they almost all died, in no small part due to his errors. I believe something like eighty percent of his men were killed.

8th AF KIA were around 6% of the US total killed/missing in WWII. RAF Bomber Command’s were around 8% of the British Empire’s. The %'s of men who flew missions were often more shockingly higher in particular periods though, even considering that many were captured and the survival rate of western Allied prisoners of the Germans was pretty high.

I agree with the general point though, and the bomber offensives were actually a better example of the pure effect of technology and tactics on casualties than the Western front in WWI is. The latter was also heavily influenced by larger social and political factors: that the armies of the combatants were so much larger in WWI than the more mobile war of 1870 over the same terrain. Likewise warfare was far more mobile on the Eastern Front of WWI where the density of men per km of front was also a lot lower. It wasn’t just technology/tactics, which it was more so for the varying loss rates of the US and British bomber offensive: early on (in its later starting campaign) the US had an unworkable formula of unescorted deep daylight raids, and completely unsustainable loss rates preventing a continuous campaign. Later on (from spring '44 to almost the end of the war) British night losses were distinctly higher than US daylight ones, as there was no solution as definitive to the German night fighter threat as the 8th AF long range escorts were to the day fighter threat. The British gradually gained the upper hand over the ‘nachtjagd’ from late '44 from a combination of advantage in the electronic warfare seesaw, support from their own night fighters (but it could never be as complete as what could be achieved in day light), and most of all German loss of strategic depth in their air defense system with the loss of France. But even in 1945 the German night fighters not rarely inflicted losses on particular British attacks which had become very rare in daylight. Some later British ops were in daylight, where even fairly short ranged fighters based in eastern France/Benelux could sweep away all German daylight fighter opposition. And widespread fitting of radar jammers in the 8th AF (the British relied more on specialist ECM units) blunted that threat as well, despite it being much easier in principal to shoot at airplanes in the day time. Whereas if the Germans had had proximity fuses and fire control equipment like the SCR-584 radar and M9 director which accompanied the VT fuse in late war US Army 90mm units, it’s questionable of the 8th AF offensive could have continued even with no Luftwaffe fighters.

Submarine/ASW warfare had similar sharp twists and turns due to technology. Although also in air and sub warfare, more and more overwhelming Allied numbers, a larger economic/political factor were also very important. 8th AF operations in the sometimes disastrous raids of 1943 were quite small compared to 1944-45.

Grant and Lee were in the field, if not on the front lines. They marched with their men.

WW2 generals like Patton and Slim also took to the field with their men.

All of which really was a function of the type of warfare they were engaged in: it was more mobile. They could not simply settle into Chateaux and look at the front lines through a high-powered telescope (there is an excellent picture in Keegan’s book of some WW1 generals doing exactly that).

Now, the critique of the “Chateaux generals” may be in a way totally unfair: as others point out, it would be hard to do their job if they were constantly displaying themselves at the front lines.

Thing is, the failure to do so (however reasonable) created a predictable impact on morale.

Jammers on numerous a/c within 8th AF formations by late '44 blunted the German flak threat, to be clear. But the level of effectiveness of German heavy flak in 1944-45 was technologically far below that of Allied proximity fuse/microwave fire control radar/advanced director equipment. The German AA guns themselves were just as good as Allied, but the Allied bombers weren’t facing nearly the most advanced overall heavy AA capability in the world at the time, which was their own.

I suppose they did, for a certain value of “with.” They certainly were not on the front lines, and Grant in particular was totally disinclined to give speeches or take any steps regarding his image among the men.

Once the fighting became static in Virginia, in fact Grant and Lee did settle into headquarters arrangements. Grant’s HQ remained at City Point for so long his wife came to stay with him.

I am unconvinced the position of the generals had much to do with it. What is undoubtedly true is that the horror of the war itself had a great deal to due with such morale problems as arose (and to be honest, there were shockingly few, given the meat grinder the Western Front was.)

I don’t think the average soldier gives a huge amount of thought to what kind of bed General Smith is sleeping in; he cares if he is being taken of, being treated fairly, and feels as if his life is not likely to be wasted pointlessly.