In ancient warfare, the leaders were usually expected to lead into battle, both to demonstrate their courage and to maintain discipline. In modern times, of course, the brass usually sits behind a desk. When did this switch occur, and why? Was it a uniform shift, or were there early and late adopters?
If we’re talking about the very top levels of generals, according to John Keegan, it happened about the time of the American Civil War, when industrial society allowed fielding of enormous armies.
I was watching a documentary this very morning about how many generals were killed in action during World War I. It was a surprisingly high number. I believe it was in the range of 70-something generals for at least two of the warring powers.
And I can think of several instances of generals being in harm’s way during World War II. McAuliffe at Bastogne, for example.
(So are you asking about generals in general, or just the top brass?)
I wonder when was the last time a US general fired a shot in battle?
If you’re talking Commaning General, that is, the guy in charge of the battle, they started leading from the rear when battles became too complex to control from the front lines. Pretty much anywhere you find a massive battle formation, you’ll find the commanding general behind the lines where he can see what’s going on and direct the action. There may well be subordinate generals on the front lines, controling lesser portions of the fight, but the Big guy will be further back. Keegan got that flat out wrong - Roman generals, for instance, were not found on the front line, though they were as close behind it as they needed to be, to control the action. 30 Years War commanding generals were behind the lines, too… And a LOT of other era’s generals besides.
I think it can be safely said that Napoleon wasn’t at the front of his army at Waterloo, which is a good peice of time before the U.S. Civil War. Washington generally wasn’t in the first wave in the American Revolution, either.
Top generals leading from the front started to disappear once armies started using gunpowder, I would think.
In ancient times a leader could be at the front of his army in relative safety. Enemies would try to capture leaders alive and collect a huge ransom to return them.
The practice disappeared when warfare developed weapons that CAN hit an elephant at this dist. Wholesale slaughter at long range replaced hand to hand fighting. And the generals knew that they would actually be in danger if they were anywhere near the actual combat.
The other factor that I think has to be recognized is that simultaneous with the advent of the industrial army have been huge advances in communications technologies. Getting information to and from front lines to some central sorting area makes coordinating actions across a battlefield, and later on, across a theatre more effective.
Did Ceasar lead from the Front?
I just read a biography of Ceasar and he didn’t lead from the front, but he did lead close to the front with a staff of assistants to carry out his orders. There is one incident during the war with Gaul where he fought from the front as a flank collapsed in an attempt to rally his side (he did). He said later that he had fought in the past to save a battle, but that was the first time he had fought to save his life.
Erwin Rommel had a reputation for leading from the front, much to the distress of his staff. Seeing the battlefield with your own eyes is different than receiving reports via radio or messenger. His book, Infantry Attacks, based on his experience in the first world war, is considered a classic book on military tactics.
But on the other hand, wasn’t the admiral who was embarked aboard USS Arizona on December 7th, 1941, the only American of flag rank killed in action during World War II?
The presence of senior officers at the front line ended when that method of leadership was no longer effective because the commander could not control his people from the front. That happened at the same time that elbow-to-elbow fighting formations became ineffective, generally the mid-Nineteenth Century in Europe and North America. The critical factor was placing a reasonably accurate weapon that could kill at long range in the hands of the ordinary soldier. That weapon was the rifled musket firing a hollow base conical ball. While the unrifled musket of the Eighteenth Century and the early Nineteenth Century had an effective range of one hundred yards or so it was so inaccurate that you had to fire a whole bunch of them at once if you expected to hit anything. On the other hand a reasonably experienced soldier with a rifled musket could be expected to aim at and hit an individual at 250 yards or somewhat more.
A soldier in a line formation firing at an assaulting line or column during the Napoleonic wars might fire two or maybe three shot in the general direction of the assaulting force while the assaulting force closed from 100 yards to point of bayonet. A soldier in the American Civil War or the Crimean War could be expected to fire six or eight aimed shots while the assaulting force closed from 250 or 300 yards. We can take Picket’s charge at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 as a demonstration of the effect of aimed rifle fire, admittedly backed by shell and cannister firing artillery, on the best motivated of massed infantry assaults. The three brigades in Picket’s Division suffered casualties of generally 60%, including all of the fifteen regimental commanders and all three brigade commanders, all of whom were leading from the front, waiving swords and shouting “Follow me, boys.”
The later development of cartridge rifles, repeating rifles and machine guns just exacerbated the problem. In order to meet aimed rifle fire soldiers had to spread out to the extent that a regimental or brigade commander could no longer direct his soldiers from the front. The commander had to take a position in the rear and direct smaller units and more dispersed units by using intermediate commanders and staff officers. It was not so much a matter of self preservation as it was that a large unit commander could no longer do his job from a position on the firing line. The “follow me” stuff became the staple of platoon lieutenants and squad leaders, not of colonels and generals.
There’s a couple of things being conflated here.
What does “from the front” mean? Does it mean literally at the front of a band of men, charging at the enemy with the leader at the head of the mob? In that case, the top generals hardly ever did such a thing even in ancient times. Alexander the Great didn’t wade into battle swinging a sword at the head of a mob. Sure, individual warband leaders of barbarians might do such a thing, but ancient civilized generals did not.
But if you mean, was the general right there at the battle, sure he was. And if things got very hot and a general might very well find himself in hand to hand combat, or might very well get killed by an arrow…look at Harold in the Battle of Hastings.
Thing is, to control your troops you must be able to communicate with them. This could be done by shouting, by trumpets or drums, by flags, or by messengers. But if the fastest message you can send is a guy on horseback with a handwritten note, a general must be present with his troops, otherwise he’s not a commander but merely an advisor, and the guy who’s there with the troops is the real commander. So there’s no way Caesar could run the war against Gaul while sitting back in Rome, the guy present with the army makes all the decisions, by the time messages reach back to Rome they are weeks or months out of date, and any orders beyond the most vague are completely useless.
But even in the modern era most generals are still in the theatre where the war is taking place, and the wrong bomb dropped in the wrong place could end them.