“The Double-Barrelled Name and the Half-Cocked Offensive”
Some observations on generalship from Socrates to Stilwell and Slim, via Napoleon and a few others on the way
On Wednesday 15 December 1943 a British military policeman, Sergeant E.W. Ellis, escorted Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, the newly appointed Supreme Commander South East Asia, to the forward positions fronting the Japanese on the Mayu Range in northern Arakan:
At the Ngakyedauk Pass we were met by the General and his Staff and to my surprise we were told to proceed, plus a fighting patrol, by jeep to a point half-way down the Pass. All dismounted and walked for approximately 200 yards where they could get the full view of the fighting. The General then explained the operation that was going on, and what amazed us was how cool he was while machine-gun fire, mortars and a sniper here and there were firing all around. He had no fear at all.
The general to whom Ellis was referring – Major General Frank Messervy, Commander of 15,000 men of 7 Indian Division – was known to his men – Indian, Gurkha and British – as ‘Uncle Frank’. He was already, despite being a relative new-comer to the division, well on the way to securing himself firmly in their affections. This is unusual. Men do not fight and die for their higher commanders. Most will suffer them, although not always gladly. Periodically, however, exceptional commanders arise to whom unusual affection is given, and to whose presence on the battlefield an almost talismanic significance is attributed. Captain John Kincaid said of Wellington, for instance, that the ‘sight of his long nose among us on a battle morning was worth ten thousand men, any day of the week.’ In Burma, Frank Messervy provided the soldiers under his command, first as the commander of 7 Indian Division and then of 4 Indian Armoured Corps for the advance into Burma in 1945, with inspirational and decisive leadership of the highest calibre.
Unusually, for good generals tend not to come in clusters, but travel singly, Messervy was not alone. Lieutenant General Bill Slim was made from the same mould. As a young Lance Corporal in the Border Regiment in 1945 George MacDonald Fraser had the opportunity to meet, and thereafter to ponder on the nature of the unusual leadership displayed by the commander of 14 Army. ‘He thought, he knew, at our level,’ Fraser concluded: ‘it was that, and the sheer certainty that was built into every line of him, that gave Fourteenth Army its overwhelming confidence; what he promised, that he would surely do… British soldiers don’t love their commanders, much less worship them; Fourteenth Army trusted Slim and thought of him as one of themselves, and perhaps his real secret was that the feeling was mutual.’ Allied success in Burma in 1944 and 1945 was caused in major part by the power of command, and the failures of the previous two years by discernible weaknesses in leadership. Messervy was typical of the ‘new’ breed of higher commander who turned the tables on the Japanese in the Far East during the Second World War.
Conversely, the dynamism of Japanese leadership which secured such dramatic successes in 1942 had waned significantly by late 1944 and 1945 and left them less able to cope with a very different battlefield and a vastly different enemy to that which they had encountered in 1942 and early 1943. In stark contrast to British, Australian and American leadership, Japanese generalship in 1945 was, in the main, focused on retaining the loyalty of Japanese soldiers to their calling as soldiers of the Emperor, and their duty to die rather than to surrender. The result was slaughter on an immense scale, as Japanese soldiers followed their commanders to earthly oblivion and (they presumed) heavenly glory.
One of the most remarked on examples of this type of leadership was that displayed by Lieutenant General Adachi Hatazo. As commander of 18 Army on New Guinea, he lost at least 110,000 of the 130,000 soldiers and sailors under his command in the period between January 1943 and August 1945. Demanding absolute obedience and sacrifice, he nevertheless asked nothing of his men that he was not prepared also to give himself. When he first arrived in New Guinea he did so at a time when the Japanese had been decisively worsted by the Australians at the battle of ‘Bloody Buna’ in which they had been forcibly ejected from the Owen Stanley mountain range, and prevented from crossing overland to capture Port Moresby.
Adachi had never before seen Japanese soldiers in defeat. The army looked beaten: it was resupplied only once after 1944, and that by submarine. Uniforms in tatters, many on crudely fashioned bamboo crutches, others carried by exhausted comrades, he was confronted by the whole moral and physical panoply of defeat. But through instinctive leadership he gathered the army together, rebuilt their morale in the direst of circumstances, and led a forlorn hope with ever-diminishing resources and manpower. He shared the hardships and rations of his men, losing nearly eighty pounds in weight and all of his teeth. But what he expected of himself – total and absolute sacrifice – he also expected in his men. Only the end of the war prevented the final elimination of the final scores of thousands of this loyal but decimated army.
Whatever the outcome of this obedience, be it death or victory, the quality of the leadership demonstrated at every level of command, from section, platoon, company, division and above, is invariably critical to the success or otherwise of armies. Mountbatten recorded of the occasion at the Ngakyedauk Pass that December day in his diary: ‘I must say the whole morale of our troops in the Arakan is definitely better than I had been led to expect but this has been brought about by a complete change of Commanders all the way through, in the last two months.’ This comment touched firmly on Napoleon’s dictum that there are no bad soldiers, only bad officers. Well led, as Euripides observed, soldiers will achieve far more in battle than those who are commanded indifferently. Mountbatten repeated the observation in his diary on 13 January 1944:
I have been doing everything in my power to improve morale, particularly on the Arakan Front, and with a new set of commanders on all levels down to most Brigadiers the same troops are fighting quite differently.
The power of command can, and has been, overstated. However, it remains true that soldiers fight battles, while generals win (or lose) wars. It is the generals – or more correctly the ‘commanders’ – who train, equip, lead and motivate soldiers, and who direct and command the forces that are engaged in the fighting. As Napoleon asserted:
The Gauls were not conquered by the Roman legions, but by Caesar. It was not before the Carthaginian soldiers that Rome was made to tremble, but before Hannibal. It was not the Macedonian phalanx which penetrated to India, but Alexander. It was not the French Army which reached the Weser and the Inn, it was Turenne. Prussia was not defended for seven years against the three most formidable European Powers by the Prussian soldiers, but by Frederick the Great.
Napoleon exaggerates for effect. It is certainly true that people remember the generals, for good or ill, but that is not to say that they alone are responsible for either success or failure in war. Too many other factors are involved to make this true in every instance. It is true, nevertheless, that generals hold the key to success or failure in battles, campaigns and wars, for it is in their hands (disregarding for a moment the political and strategic dimension that provides the context in which operations take place) that armies are deployed, decisions made and operations conducted.
Generals, of course, never operate in a political vacuum. Everything they do is defined within the strategic context framed for them by their government: this tells them where to fight, whom to fight (generally), and with what resources. It also trains and prepares them, and provides the wherewithal to train, equip, organise and provide for their soldiers. These factors provide the colour to the decisions commanders make. It may in fact provide the direct reason for success or failure on the battlefield, because of the over- or under-supply of some critical warfighting equipment, of food, of fuel or so on. But beyond this context, the responsibility for everything else depends on the generals themselves, and the impact their decisions make on their armies, and on the enemy.
In Arakan in early 1944 Frank Messervy had to earn the respect, admiration and ‘followership’ (the phrase is Professor Sir Michael Howard’s) of the men of 7 Indian Division. It did not come naturally, as part and parcel of his appointment to high command, as some generals have sometimes, to their cost, assumed. In fact, Messervy’s selection to command 7 Indian Division holding the line in northern Arakan had not been universally welcomed, as it was brought about by the removal of a very popular predecessor. After two years of experience in Burma, Captain Wilson Stephens was largely inured to the comings and goings of senior officers, admitting that by 1943:
… we were mostly pretty hard-boiled about Generals by that time. In those days in the Far East no General lasted very long and mostly we were glad to see them go. We looked upon them rather as necessary millstones around our necks and were comforted by the thought that if anything happened the General was probably back in Calcutta anyway.
Stephens could not see what benefit any general had brought him, personally. Indeed, his only previous experience of high command was that it brought with it trouble, confusion and failure. The quality of the generalship to which he was referring, described later in this book, was of a particularly abject kind and calculated to stir not emotion or affection in the hearts of the soldiery but rather hostility and rejection, for it displayed no understanding or empathy with the realities of the ordinary soldier’s lot on the battlefield. For it is an absolute truth in war that men will only wholeheartedly follow leaders in whom they trust: repeated tactical mistakes, over- or under-assessments of the enemy and misjudgements about tactics or dispositions will not secure the reciprocation of either loyalty or obedience. For generalship to be effective a moral compact needs to be agreed – and it is in the nature of command that this agreement is tacit – between the leader and the led. The leader will do all in his power to do the right thing to bring about victory, and the led will do all in their power to ensure that these right things are brought about speedily and efficiently. The ultimate test of leadership is that the led will continue to do the will of the leader even after the latter’s death, and even to their own.
One of the reasons for Stephens’ antipathy to generals in 1943 and perhaps partly a cause of the recent decline in the study of the ‘great men’ of history is that so often on close examination these men prove not to be so great after all. In the popular mind, at least, the generals of history are easy to typecast. They are commonly seen either villains or heroes, good or bad, arrogant or approachable, competent or incompetent, caring or cruel. They can be the arch-bureaucrats of death, like the so-called ‘châteaux’ generals of the First World War, typified by the generals playing leapfrog as the world all around them went to hell in a hand basket in 1969’s Oh! What a Lovely War, or by 1990’s Blackadder’s General Melchett. These are generals who by virtue of their physical distance from their men remain criminally untouched by the overwhelming suffering of the vast armies they command, fighting men forced to struggle against each other in the mud, blood and futility of war whilst their masters live in isolated comfort far from the front.
On the other side of the coin generals can be regarded as heroes (soldiers on the Front Line as well as civilians on the Home Front have an insatiable appetite for heroes), and the extraordinarily successful masters of the manoeuvre battlefield, like Erwin Rommel in the Western Desert of North Africa, run rings around less competent opponents, apparently endowing everything they touch with success. The basis of Erwin Rommel’s success in North Africa in 1941 and 1942 was his ability to act decisively – if not always sensibly – and to outwit his opponents, who quickly came to look distinctly lacklustre by comparison. Interestingly, it was young British and Australian soldiers who quickly built up the myth of Rommel as the ‘Desert Fox’, admiring in the German leader characteristics they could not find in their own commanders. As Frank Harrison, who as a young soldier fought through the North African campaign, cooped up for most of 1941 inside Tobruk, observed somewhat brutally, but truthfully, ‘Rommel was seen by the Eighth Army soldier as a winner, whereas his own leaders were all proven losers.’
Both spectrums are quite clearly exaggerations of the truth, but if the commercial success of Blackadder is anything to go by, these simplifications seem to resonate widely in the popular imagination, even amongst fighting men. In particular these characterisations forget that two years on from the Somme – the battle that seems more than any other to typify the incompetence of British command – the quality of British generalship on the Western Front had been immeasurably transformed, and delivered the outstanding though largely forgotten victories of 1918. Poor command contributed to the failures of 1916, whilst successful generalship helped rescue the situation in 1918.
Generals are likewise easy to lampoon. Major General JFC Fuller prefaced his monograph Generalship: Its Diseases and Their Cure, published in March 1936, with a story told to him in a Paris café by an officer of the French General Staff:
At the battle of Waterloo, Colonel Clement, an infantry commander, fought with the most conspicuous bravery; but unfortunately was shot through the head. Napoleon, hearing of his gallantry and misfortune, gave instructions for him to be carried into a farm where Larrey the surgeon-general was operating.
One glance convinced Larrey that his case was desperate, so taking up a saw he removed the top of his skull and placed his brains on the table.
Just as he had finished, in rushed an aide-de-camp, shouting: ‘Is General Clement here?’
Clement, hearing him, sat up and exclaimed: ‘No! but Colonel Clement is.’
‘Oh, mon général,’ cried the aide-de-camp, embracing him, ‘the Emperor was overwhelmed when we heard of your gallantry, and has promoted you on the field of battle to the rank of General.’
Clement rubbed his eyes, got off the table, clapped the top of his skull on his head and was about to leave the farm, when Larrey shouted after him: ‘Mon général – your brains!’ To which the gallant Frenchman, increasing his speed, shouted back: ‘Now that I am a general I shall no longer require them!’
The history of warfare is replete with examples of the outcomes of battles fought by men like the newly promoted General Clement. The key task of a general is to defeat the enemy, and to do so with the greatest economy of blood and treasure and with the swiftest speed. Simply defeating one’s enemy as the result of a bitter and bloody slogging match in which both sides suffer heavily might bring about the desired outcome, but it will not be quick, it will not be without injury to both sides and it may not be decisive. Men like the fictional though brainless Clement will wage war with little concern for subtlety or guile – perhaps in pursuit of some idea of honour or duty – and will suffer a high ‘butcher’s bill’ as a result.
One way to understand the nature of command is to understand why generals fail. Fifteen hundred years ago the Chinese soldier Sun Tzŭ wrote a short treatise on the subject of warfare, known since its first translation into English in 1905 as The Art of War. He argued that generals failed for one or more of five reasons:
1. They are reckless, taking uncalculated risks, thus gambling with the lives of their men.
2. They are cowards, being unwilling to take calculated risks (i.e. to be bold).
3. They are unable to remain calm and dispassionate, executing their judgements in temper.
4. They are too concerned with losing ‘face’ or embarrassing themselves, thus making wrong, premature or [late] decisions.
5. They are over-solicitous for their men, not pressing them as hard as the situation demands.
For his part, Fuller in the 1930s lamented the fact that most generals were old. He criticised their consequent mental and physical infirmities, and the instincts towards self-preservation that took them away from the discomforts of the front line. He argued that age destroyed originality, and despaired that the British military tradition was such that these failings were replicated a hundredfold by junior commanders modelling themselves on the (poor) behaviour of their leaders.
In particular he regretted the lack of the personal dimension of command in the First World War, a theme taken up by commentators in the 1960s and 1970s. During this war, he argued, generals lost touch with the common soldier, and were no longer close to the fire, sweat, fear and smoke of battle:
…the personal factor was gone, the man was left without a master, a true master – the general in flesh and blood, who could see, who could hear, who could watch, and who could feel, who could swear and curse, praise and acclaim, and above all who risked his life with his men, and not merely issued orders mechanically from some well-hidden headquarters miles and miles to the rear.
Professor Norman Dixon in his fabulous On the Psychology of Military Incompetence expanded Sun Tzŭ’s list from five to fourteen. His study of British generalship concluded that ineptitude (what the historian John Ellis memorably describes as the double-barrelled name and the half-cocked offensive) was caused by any one of the following:
1. A failure to observe the principle of economy of force, resulting in a serious waste of human life.
2. A fundamental conservatism and attachment to tradition, and an inability to profit from past experience (owing in part to a refusal to admit past mistakes), which exhibited itself in a refusal to adopt new technology.
3. A tendency to reject or ignore information which is unpalatable or which conflicts with preconceptions.
4. A tendency to underestimate the enemy and overestimate the capabilities of one’s own side.
5. Indecisiveness and a tendency to abdicate from the role of decision-maker.
6. An obstinate persistence in a given task despite strong contrary evidence.
7. A failure to exploit a situation gained and a tendency to ‘pull punches’ rather than push home an attack.
8. A failure to make adequate reconnaissance.
9. A predilection for frontal assaults, often against the enemy’s strongest point.
10. A belief in brute force rather than the clever ruse.
11. A failure to make use of surprise or deception.
12. An undue readiness to find scapegoats for military set-backs.
13. A suppression or distortion of news from the front, usually rationalized as necessary for morale or security.
14. A belief in mystical forces, such as fate and bad luck.
Dixon found that many of the most incompetent commanders in history have had authoritarian personalities that exhibited one or more of the following character traits:
1. An inability to comprehend enemy intentions, and to use information regarding them (especially if they conflicted with his own beliefs and preconceptions).
2. A refusal to sacrifice cherished traditions or to accept technical innovations.
3. Underestimating enemy ability (particularly when the enemy are coloured or considered racially inferior).
4. Overemphasising the value of blind obedience and loyalty (at the expense of initiative and innovation), at lower levels of command.
5. Protecting the reputations of senior commanders, and punishing juniors in the military hierarchy whose opinions, however valuable in themselves, might imply criticism of those higher up.
6. A propensity to blame others for his own shortcomings.
If these are the reasons why generals by and large – and British ones specifically – have failed in the past, it would appear that the better selection and training of commanders will lead to improved qualities of generalship. Clearly, brains matter, despite the view that all soldiers have at one time or another that their own commanders are undoubtedly clones of General Clement and need their heads examining. But brains are not everything. As Carl von Clausewitz noted in On War, first published in 1832: ‘Intelligence alone is not courage; we often see that the most intelligent people are irresolute…’
In terms of the functions that need to be carried out by military leaders, generalship is concerned with at least four interconnected activities: the construction of plans, the leadership of men and women, the management of warfighting systems and the control of all the processes associated with combat. A successful general is one who is able to master the complexities of these requirements, and to use them to win battles. It is clear, even from the simple listing of these functions, that higher commanders need to be carefully selected and trained in both the art (‘leadership’) and the science (‘plans’, ‘management’ and ‘control’) of war. Mastery of high command requires specific, clearly defined qualities. Sun Tzŭ concludes that generalship requires steadiness, resolution, stability, patience, and calmness.
In 1939 General Archie Wavell described to the students of Trinity College, Cambridge what he regarded to be the essential qualifications of a higher commander. He cited Socrates’ definition of a leader as the closest to the ideal that he had ever come across:
The general must know how to get his men their rations and every other kind of stores needed for war. He must have imagination to originate plans, practical sense and energy to carry them through. He must be observant, untiring, shrewd; kindly and cruel; simple and crafty; a watchman and a robber; lavish and miserly; generous and stingy; rash and conservative. All these and many other qualities, natural and acquired, he must have. He should also, as a matter of course, know his tactics; for a disorderly mob is no more an army than a heap of building materials is a house.
This definition was attractive to Wavell because he felt it emphasised crucially the importance to generalship of ‘administration’ or what he described as the ‘mechanics’ of war, such as supply and communication. This was a point he was repeatedly to emphasise during his career. He argued that knowledge of tactics (the deployment of troops on the battlefield) was relatively unimportant by comparison to the issues of ‘logistics’. Indeed, he went further, and argued that strategy (the defining of plans to meet a higher political or grand strategic purpose) was even less important than the ability of a commander to use the correct tactics. Wavell’s analysis in 1939 was that it was ‘knowledge of the mechanics of war, not of the principles of strategy that distinguish a good leader from a bad.’ Socrates’ definition could only be improved, he felt, by an emphasis on the need for generals to be physically and mentally robust, able to deal calmly and maturely with the emotional vicissitudes of warfare, something, indeed, that Clausewitz and other commentators had also stressed. In short, Wavell’s position in 1939 was that generalship was more about mastery of logistics than it was of tactics, or even of strategy, and that little else, on the personal dimension, mattered.
By 1942, however, he was saying something quite different. In a letter to The Times on 23 October he asserted:
…the considerations which should, in my view, be taken into account in assessing the value of a general are these: his worth as a strategist; his skill as a tactician; his power to deal tactfully with his Government and with allies; and his energy and driving power in planning and in battle.
This latter definition of successful generalship is in fact much closer to Socrates than Wavell had concluded in his analysis three years earlier. The key part of Socrates’ definition of generalship lies in the threefold assertion that generals need to create plans, enjoy an uncommon quota of practical sense and possess considerable reserves of energy, both physical and emotional. In his 1942 ordering, Wavell now clearly accepted the importance of strategy and diplomacy, something he had earlier ignored, and adds the new quality of ‘energy and driving power’, the latter of which he describes as ‘perhaps the greatest factor of all in military success…’
Neither Socrates nor Wavell considered personal leadership to be important enough to add to their lists. Yet in Arakan in early 1944 it was Messervy’s relationship with his men – his personal attractiveness – that endeared him to them in the first instance.
As Socrates suggested, generalship is tough. It requires the taking of hard decisions and the moral courage to stand by what one believes to be right. In July 1944 Lieutenant General ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell, commanding the Chinese and American forces in northern Burma, commented perceptively on the challenges facing the commander, reflecting the wide gamut of his own experience in over two years of war against the Japanese in Asia:
A good commander is a man of high character … with power of decision the next most important attribute. He must have moral backbone… and he must be physically courageous, or successfully conceal the fact if he is not. He must know the tools of his trade, tactics and logistics. He must be impartial. He must be calm under stress. He must reward promptly and punish justly. He must be accessible, human, patient, forbearing. He should listen to advice, make his own decision, and carry it out with energy.
Unless a commander is human, he cannot understand the reactions of his men. If he is human the pressure on him intensifies tremendously. The callous man has no mental struggle over jeopardising the lives of 10,000 men; the human commander cannot avoid this struggle. It is constant and wearing, and yet necessary, for the men can sense the commander’s difficulty. There are many ways in which he can show his interest in them and they respond, once they believe it is real. Then you get mutual confidence, the basis of real discipline….
The private carries the woes of one man; the general carries the woes of all. He is conscious always of the responsibility on his shoulders, of the relatives of the men entrusted to him, and of their feelings. He must act so that he can face those fathers and mothers without shame and remorse. How can he do this? By constant care, by meticulous thought and preparation, by worry, by insistence on high standards in everything, by reward and punishment, by impartiality, by an example of calm and confidence. It all adds up to character.’
Quite. It is just unfortunate that by his own behaviour Stilwell demonstrated that he could never attain Socrates’ high ideal. Fortunately, in the Far East there were enough in the Allied camp, by 1944, who were.
(Some of this material first saw light of day in my 2006 book, The Generals. All sources can be found referenced there.)
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