NAM's Britain's Greatest General - Final Five

#1
Peter Snow, William Philpott, Andrew Hopper, James Falkner, Robert Lyman
9 April 2011, 10.30am - 5.30pm

For eight weeks some of the greatest warriors in history have been battling it out on the Museum’s website to discover who holds the title of Britain’s Greatest General. The public have now selected the five who go forward to the final battle.

On 9 April, in a day of celebrity speakers, these five will be championed by historians, authors and journalists, each with 40 minutes to explain why their hero should receive the accolade. The public will be allowed to question each advocate, then they will vote to determine who is Britain’s Greatest General.

The final five and their advocates:

* The Duke of Wellington - Peter Snow
* Douglas Haig - William Philpott
* Oliver Cromwell - Andrew Hopper
* The Duke of Marlborough - James Falkner
* William Slim - Robert Lyman

Tickets can be purchased in the following ways:

* Telephone: 020 7881 6600
* Online: Use the booking form on this page or visit the Museum Shop
* At the Museum

Britain's Greatest General | Targeted Talks | What's On | National Army Musuem
 
#2
The final five and their advocates:

* The Duke of Wellington - Peter Snow
* Douglas Haig - William Philpott
* Oliver Cromwell - Andrew Hopper
* The Duke of Marlborough - James Falkner
* William Slim - Robert Lyman
I'd be interested to hear Andrew Hopper as he appears to have written a book on "Thomas Fairfax Parliament's foremost general". It would be nice to think he'll stick to that line.
 

Wordsmith

LE
Book Reviewer
#3
The other four I can see the justification for, but Douglas Haig?

There were potentially war winning strategies to break the stalemate on the Western Front - Haig does not seem to have used any of them correctly.

For example, he prematurely used tanks (and revealed them to the Germans) instead of massing enough to launch an offensive based on them.

Similarly, the Germans demonstrated that 'storm trooper' tactics could break through a trench line, while Haig's attritional tactics never succeeded.

Efficient organiser - probably. Innovative and war winning general? Me thinks not.

Wordsmith
 

FORMER_FYRDMAN

LE
Book Reviewer
#4
The other four I can see the justification for, but Douglas Haig?

There were potentially war winning strategies to break the stalemate on the Western Front - Haig does not seem to have used any of them correctly.

For example, he prematurely used tanks (and revealed them to the Germans) instead of massing enough to launch an offensive based on them.

Similarly, the Germans demonstrated that 'storm trooper' tactics could break through a trench line, while Haig's attritional tactics never succeeded.

Efficient organiser - probably. Innovative and war winning general? Me thinks not.

Wordsmith
Not so. 'Storm Trooper' tactics outran their support and were fatally flawed. The answer, given the technology of the time, was 'bite and hold', and that was what the British Army used in 1918 (and caused one of the senior German commanders to remark that the pupils had become the teachers).

Shame that Monty's unfashionable and Slim's got the nod - Overlord dwarfs anything the others attempted, both technically and in historical importance. Hopefully Wellington will win - he usually did.
 
#5
Shame that Monty's unfashionable and Slim's got the nod - Overlord dwarfs anything the others attempted, both technically and in historical importance.
At the risk of turning this into a debate, Overlord was a committee affair however much Monty would have liked it to have been his alone.

"Britain's Greatest General" and the short-list reminds me of an anecdote in Allan Mallinson's 'The Making of the British Army'; when he was asked by an Italian officer to list Britain's top ten generals, he replied that the top five were fairly easy that the others might raise some debate. The Italian stopped him and said that Italy couldn't raise a list of one.
 
#6
"Britain's Greatest General" and the short-list reminds me of an anecdote in Allan Mallinson's 'The Making of the British Army'; when he was asked by an Italian officer to list Britain's top ten generals, he replied that the top five were fairly easy that the others might raise some debate. The Italian stopped him and said that Italy couldn't raise a list of one.
Depends on the time scale you're looking at, easy enough to find 5 good Romans.
 
#7
Hopefully Wellington will win - he usually did.
I think that the trouble with promoting Wellington is that his victories were essentially a side show. I'd argue that the Russians won the Napoleonic wars, and it is to their eternal credit that having done so they went home.

In my opinion of the five named Marlborough and Haig won big wars with geopolitical impact and of these two Haig's was by far the biggest but he was technically 2iC to Foch. Marlborough was the multinational CinC of his day so I'd say he should be No. 1.
 

Wordsmith

LE
Book Reviewer
#8
Not so. 'Storm Trooper' tactics outran their support and were fatally flawed. The answer, given the technology of the time, was 'bite and hold', and that was what the British Army used in 1918 (and caused one of the senior German commanders to remark that the pupils had become the teachers).
I thought the fundamental problem with WW1 bite and hold tactics (a la Plumer) is that they couldn't generate enough of a distance gain to get through all the German defence lines, and out into open country beyond. Each bite was thus doomed to be sealed off by the Germans.

As to the Storm Trooper tactics, might you not make a case for Ludendorff not getting his strategic aims correct, and thus not exploiting the successive breakthroughs to their maximum advantage?

Shame that Monty's unfashionable and Slim's got the nod - Overlord dwarfs anything the others attempted, both technically and in historical importance.
Slim achieved a lot on very limited resources. Montgomery always had superior resources - although he admittedly made very effective use of them. Montgomery never took the risks that Slim did on very limited supplies. Compare Slim's final drive towards Rangoon with Montgomery's pursuit after Alamien.

I think that the trouble with promoting Wellington is that his victories were essentially a side show..
You might like to consider how many of Napoleon's troops were tied down in the Spanish peninsula. 250,000 is not an underestimate. And although Napoleon never commanded in person against Wellington in Spain, Wellington saw off a wide selection of of Napoleon's marshals - including some very competent ones.

Wordsmitth
 
#9
I agree with Wordsmith with relating to Slim, compared to Monty. Another few example are; 1) the Irrawaddy crossings, in jungle terrain, with no infrastructure, and with limited air and logistic support. 2) Operation Extended Capital, separating his 2 Corps to capture both Mandalay and Meikita, and totally destroying Jap forces in Burma. 3) Finally Slim's best, his withdrawal to India, keeping Burma Corps intact as a fighting, coherent force.
Monty was a highly successful and competent general, there's no doubt about that. I just believe Slim was the better general, it's a shame he's not more widely know to the masses.
 
#10
You might like to consider how many of Napoleon's troops were tied down in the Spanish peninsula. 250,000 is not an underestimate.
I don't think this alters my conclusion, was it a valuable side show? possibly. Would it have finished Napoleon if the Russians hadn't done the damage in 1812 I'd suggest not. Up to and including 1812 Wellington was hopping around avoiding losing, tactical victories but strategic stalemate.
 
#11
I thought the fundamental problem with WW1 bite and hold tactics (a la Plumer) is that they couldn't generate enough of a distance gain to get through all the German defence lines, and out into open country beyond. Each bite was thus doomed to be sealed off by the Germans.


Wordsmitth
Is that not the point though? Bite and hold sought (and achieved) limited objectives. The battles of the previous years ensured that defence was in depth and a break-out into open country in one fell swoop as envisaged in 1914, where cavalry would win the war, was simply not possible in 1918. Haig made the most of the equipment available to him in terms of tactics and although he failed to attack with massed tanks he appears to have learned from experience.

As for tanks, debate as to their proper usage waged long after the First war ended.

In terms of generalship, Marlborough certainly deserves a closer look.
 

Fang_Farrier

LE
Kit Reviewer
Book Reviewer
#12
Is that not the point though? Bite and hold sought (and achieved) limited objectives. The battles of the previous years ensured that defence was in depth and a break-out into open country in one fell swoop as envisaged in 1914, where cavalry would win the war, was simply not possible in 1918. Haig made the most of the equipment available to him in terms of tactics and although he failed to attack with massed tanks he appears to have learned from experience.

As for tanks, debate as to their proper usage waged long after the First war ended.

In terms of generalship, Marlborough certainly deserves a closer look.
I must admit to having thought that Haig favoured the use of tanks but at the time they were a fairly unknown quantity, much was promised of them which they initially failed to live up to.
 

Wordsmith

LE
Book Reviewer
#13
Is that not the point though? Bite and hold sought (and achieved) limited objectives.
And that was the problem. The mark of a great general is to win wars fast and at the lowest possible cost to his own troops. All Haig seemed to do was butt his head into the brick wall of the German defences.

What has always struck me about the First world War is that how progress was only made when tactical (and sometimes strategic) surprise was achieved. For example, the German use of gas at Ypres in 1915 had the potential to create a break through, as did use of Storm Troopers in 1918. On the British side, the mines at Messines created surprise. Similarly, tanks could have created a break through if used in mass. Instead Haig gave away surprise by using just 49 on the Somme in 1916.

Gallipoli had the potential to deliver strategic surprise if a full assault landing had been carried out without warning from the start - i.e. no preliminary bombardment from battleships to give several months warning to the defenders.

Now all this is 20/20 hindsight, but it seems to me that no WW1 general on either side had that flash of genius to use surprise to break the deadlock. And without that flash of inspiration, you can't call a general great.

Wordsmith
 

Wordsmith

LE
Book Reviewer
#14
I don't think this alters my conclusion, was it a valuable side show? possibly. Would it have finished Napoleon if the Russians hadn't done the damage in 1812 I'd suggest not. Up to and including 1812 Wellington was hopping around avoiding losing, tactical victories but strategic stalemate.
But Napoleon was in effect operating on interior lines, so he had the ability to redeploy troops from one side of his empire to another faster than the allies. So, having 250,000 troops tied up in Spain prevented them being used for other purposes. I'm not saying Napoleon's logistical arrangements (rudimentary as they were) would have allowed him to use additional troops in Russia - but he didn't have the option because they were tied up in Spain

I'd say the largest single factor in Napoleons defeat was the ability of the UK to subsidise the armies of the other countries in the varying coalitions and help keep them in the field. Some of those subsidies went to the Portuguese and Spanish armies that fought in alliance with Wellington. And more gold went to help Wellington's logistics and help him maintain a large force of British troops without antagonising the people of Portugal or Spain.

A lesser general would have lost in Spain. Instead Wellington tied up and wrote down large numbers of French troops - thus making a major contribution to Napoleon's eventual downfall.

Wordsmith
 
#15
Wordsmith said:
Now all this is 20/20 hindsight, but it seems to me that no WW1 general on either side had that flash of genius to use surprise to break the deadlock. And without that flash of inspiration, you can't call a general great.
The problem faced by the WWI generals was the lack of command and control once the show started. That's why 'Bite & Hold' developed and why it is deemed to have been the best workable solution. The lack of comms made anything else impossible.
 
#16
Just a thought but the WW1 generals had to cope with lots of new stuff. There was no doctrine in 1913 that could even imagine 1918. Those men took an army configured as a colonial police force of 350,000 and turned it into one of 4.5m. Along the way they had to contend with air/chemical/Engr/Arty/Lack of comms/armr and logistics that no one had ever dreamed of. They had to make it up as they went along. They didn't panic when the kaiserschlact hit them and having held the German Army they then defeated it in detail.

Haig delivered the British Army with it's greatest ever victory. Still think Wellington was a much better general, and Slim is my personal hero.
 
#17
WW1 and Haig, will always be a contentious and controversial issue, given the nature of warfare and the resulting casualties. It's always simple with the perspective of hindsight.
 
#18
Haig's reputation was trashed by LLoyd George for his own personal reasons. Lloyd George was the sort of man who makes the inmates of Wormwood Scrubs seem reasonably honest. He was assisted by a man called Murdoch who was a low life Australian journo who had to apologise to the Aussie generals because of the lies he wrote. Murdoch did much to spread the attitude found in Australia that the diggers were badly abused by the Brits. It is Murdoch's son who is the beacon of light, honesty and intellectual rigour that runs Fox news in the US.

Haig is not my favourite General but he did more than most to deliver the greatest victory this country has ever won.
 
#19
Haig's reputation was trashed by LLoyd George for his own personal reasons. Lloyd George was the sort of man who makes the inmates of Wormwood Scrubs seem reasonably honest.
The inmates of Wormwood Scrubs want to sue you...Lloyd George made the inmates of the last Parliament look like models of probity.

Haig was not able to do the things modern day armoured apologists think he should, because the armour he had at his disposal was neither capable enough or able to operate in a combined arms battle effectively. However Haig got indirect artillery and got the importance of the sort of technology - e.g. survey and mapping - that most blokes in Thunderbird hats and red strides don't appreciate!!

If Haig hadn't been selected, then this excellent exercise would have been a travesty.
 

Bouillabaisse

LE
Book Reviewer
#20
But Napoleon was in effect operating on interior lines, so he had the ability to redeploy troops from one side of his empire to another faster than the allies. So, having 250,000 troops tied up in Spain prevented them being used for other purposes. I'm not saying Napoleon's logistical arrangements (rudimentary as they were) would have allowed him to use additional troops in Russia - but he didn't have the option because they were tied up in Spain
.

Wordsmith
Not so. One of the fundamentals of the Napoleonic wars was Britain's ability to strike at most points around his European empire almost at will thanks to the superior lines of communications available by sea and the overwhelming advatage in logisitcs it gave us.
 

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