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The Great War Generals on the Western Front, 1914-18

– tekijä: Robin Neillands

JäseniäKirja-arvostelujaSuosituimmuussijaKeskimääräinen arvioMaininnat
862253,605 (3.71)3
Many Great War histories tell the reader what happened on the Western front but few spell out why. In this book, the author looks at the battles through the eyes of the generals who were charged with winning them and examines the accusations that have surrounded them for over 70 years. The tragedy of the death toll on the Western Front gives weight to the argument against them, but what were the near unsurmountable problems that stood between the generals and final victory? How much of what the general public believes about the First World War is really true? This book aims to illuminate the bitter controversy.… (lisätietoja)
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The common perception of British generalship in the Great War – as put forth in many depictions of the conflict from at least Oh, What a Lovely War! through “lions led by donkeys” to Blackadder Goes Fourth and beyond - is of cavalry officers with little knowledge of infantry tactics in charge, of widespread incompetence and callousness, of throwing men rather than competence at the enemy, of safely staying well behind the lines. In this book Neillands sets out the evidence for and against these assertions and as a result comes down in favour of the generals. In many respects for me he was pushing against an open door. It has always struck me that if the British generals were so incompetent and useless how come we didn’t lose the war? Add to that the fact that the British (and Empire) force was the only major Allied combatant (setting aside the short - but still bloody - sojourn of the US Expeditionary forces) that did not suffer a large mutiny or rout and the questions ought to be why, if their leaders were so useless, were British soldiers so steadfast? Why were they so willing to follow orders - and keep doing so?

Despite its all-encompassing sub-title the book is chiefly focused on the British generals on the Western Front, though French and German generals are of course dealt with as necessary. Overall, however, it is more of a complete history of the British sectors of the Western Front rather than a summary of the doings of the generals who directed the efforts there.

Neillands states that it is only British generals that have been subjected to such criticisms as a group. No such opprobrium has been heaped on the French or German generals as a whole despite similar propensities to life squandering, particularly the Germans at Langemarck and the French in Nivelle’s offensive. Plus there’s always Verdun.

For all sides this was a new kind of war (though slightly prefigured by aspects of the American Civil War and the Russo-Japanese War.) None of the European agonists had been subjected to industrial war of this kind before, though in terms of numbers the French and Germans were prepared for it, the latter also in terms of artillery. All expected a war of movement - and a quick resolution. As it was the trench system came about by accident; in the attempts of both sides to outflank each other in the “Race to the Sea.” And throughout defence held the upper hand.

Like all British armies at the start of a war the BEF was inadequate to the coming task in numbers and equipment; lacking in machine guns and especially artillery. Its astonishing proficiency in rifle fire could not make up for this. It would take time - years - to provide enough artillery ammunition, to recruit, to equip and to train not only the soldiers but also the staff officers necessary for the army to function efficiently (and of these the staff officers take much longer to train.) Until that came about the generals, like the soldiers, had to do the best with what they had, and to learn the techniques and tactics required to succeed. Plus they were fighting Germans; dogged professional soldiers who never gave in easily, the best army in the field - certainly until the end of 1916 (when the British perhaps took over the mantle.)

Among other beliefs Neillands describes as myths is that all British troops on the first day of the Battle of the Somme moved forward in line and at walking pace. There was in fact a large variation in tactics, the generals on the ground being largely responsible for their own formations’ procedures. The sentence attributed to Lieutenant-General Kiggell, after Passchendaele, “Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?” has no provenance and is likely to be apocryphal. Neillands finds it incredible that any general faced with all the reports from the front, aerial photos, requisitions etc could have been unaware of the conditions. Quite why Third Ypres was nevertheless persisted with is a question harder to avoid.

Some criticisms are easily dispatched. Much fewer than half of the British generals were originally from cavalry regiments while an average of one general a week was lost to enemy action, hardly indicative of distance from the front. They were not hidebound tactically but learned from earlier reverses. However, in response to British innovations in attack the Germans continually adopted new defensive tactics and provided new problems to solve.

Neillands contends that the difficulties of prosecuting such a war have not been sufficiently acknowledged by the critics. The generals were from the outset instructed by the British Government to co-operate closely with their French allies. This in many respects tied the hands of both British Commanders-in-Chief, Sir John French and Sir Douglas Haig. Sometimes this necessary support, as at Loos, led to attacks the British generals did not favour. At the Somme and Third Ypres the necessity to divert German resources to relieve pressure on the French (from Verdun and the consequences of the French mutiny respectively) more or less demanded action.

The static nature of the trench system, the opportunities it gave the Germans to develop defence in depth (from Second Ypres in 1914 till their spring offensive in 1918 the Germans did not launch a major attack on the British Army anywhere along the line,) was a large factor in preventing a breakthrough. Allenby was not a notable success on the Western Front but in a war of movement in Palestine was able to show his capabilities more readily.

The main problem affecting the war’s conduct, though, was communications; which could not be relied on. Amid the smoke of battle, lines of sight were obscured; wireless technology was neither robust nor portable; telephone lines - even buried metres deep – were prone to severance by shellfire; carrier pigeons inadequate. The problem was never properly solved even by the war’s end.

Nor are any alternative strategies entirely obvious. Short of abandoning the war (so allowing Germany to keep its gains) - a course which the Allied Governments never contemplated - there was little option but to carry on.

Another factor affecting the generals was that Prime Minister Lloyd George never trusted them, Haig in particular. Neillands holds Lloyd George partly responsible for the British being forced to retreat by the German “Michael” offensive of March 1918 as he had held troops back in Britain rather than reinforcing the front. The overwhelming force of their initial attack would have caused problems in any case but even in its unstrengthened form the army, though it retreated, nevertheless did not break; the Germans were held.

In passing Neillands decries the “Pommie bashing” of latter day Australian and Canadian historians who variously claim the British “establishment” was biased against their own commanders and treated colonial troops as cannon fodder. While acknowledging the quality of these troops and the abilities of the Canadian General Currie and the Australian General Monash in particular, he shows most British divisions - and not a few generals - were equally effective.

Some criticisms are harder to defray. Typically there was a failure to exploit initial success quickly (in the case of Cambrai a disbelief in the extent of that success and a lack of preparedness for it) and an all too prevalent tendency to keep bashing away when an attack slowed down, in the belief that the Germans were weakening and “one more push” would prevail.

Yet the final victories - and they were victories, the Hindenburg line was breached, the British Army ended up as far advanced from the trench lines as Mons (where its participation in the war had started) – are not given nearly as much attention as the earlier “failures”. That is an indictment of those who give more weight to the generals’ shortcomings than to the achievements of the men under their direction. It was the war, and its continuation, plus the inability of the technology of attack to overcome that of defence that was the problem.

This is a book that, while not ignoring their faults, attests to the good faith of the British generals of the Great War, men doing their best amidst adverse circumstances. ( )
  jackdeighton | Aug 18, 2017 |
A difficult to access book that none the less has some real gems of both insight & fact. Broadly, sympathetic look @ command in the First World War, in particular, the group of Generals who had responsibility for British forces on the Western Front. One of the things that I found refreshing about this book, was the authors honesty, particularly initially. He wanted to examine, discuss & conclude the charge that British generals in the First World War, had behaved in a callous, disregarding manner with regards to their men, & essentially were to be described as incompetent. Those looking for a description of soldier's condition's, real stories, or detailed front line stories, will not find It find it here. This is essentially a book about command. The maps & their depictions of various army actions, are very good, & thankfully not difficult to follow. Within it's limited remit, this is a superb book those looking for more, should probably look elsewhere. ( )
  aadyer | Apr 6, 2014 |
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Many Great War histories tell the reader what happened on the Western front but few spell out why. In this book, the author looks at the battles through the eyes of the generals who were charged with winning them and examines the accusations that have surrounded them for over 70 years. The tragedy of the death toll on the Western Front gives weight to the argument against them, but what were the near unsurmountable problems that stood between the generals and final victory? How much of what the general public believes about the First World War is really true? This book aims to illuminate the bitter controversy.

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