Failure of Leadership Case Study: The Donkeys and For the Sake of Example

This is an article which explores catastrophic failures of leadership and error in the history of the armed forces.  I draw together verbatim quotations from Alan Clark’s book ‘The Donkeys’, and Anthony Babington’s ‘Capital Courts Martial 1914-18, The Truth’.  Alan Clark was a British Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) and Anthony Babington was a former circuit judge. Whilst these esteemed critiques were authored into military history, they offer vital understandings and insights into the failures we are seeing in civilian life.


These histories I draw upon with the greatest of respect for the lives lost and damaged holding in my mind the notion “Ours is to question why, ours is not to do or die”.  Without people raising questions and engaging constructive critical thinking, terrible things happen to individuals, organisations, communities, countries and the world in general; it is essential to avoid cultures of group think, dysfunctional systems and idiots who get into positions of agency/power.


Speaking from the privilege of never having seen war, I feel a personal responsibility to dedicate my life efforts to maintaining peace wherever I can, in whatever way.  Although being of the orientation of peace and diplomacy, I do think that gleaning from the learning which has had to take place in the military can offer helpful insights.  Both Clark and Babbington’s histories are important to read in peace time so culturally we may strengthen our capacity to have candid conversations for when we are being led by asses.


For the sake of Example cpaital courts martials 1914 to 1918 by Anthony Babbington
For the sake of Example cpaital courts martials 1914 to 1918 by Anthony Babbington


Click here to download sample of book


Failure to Recognise Harms

I am especially interested in understanding how we as citizen’s can understand failures of leadership, investing a significant amount of effort in the anthropology of organisational systems, the effects of depersonalisation and dehumanisation psychology, and the lasting effects of complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder on people and populations.


Looking at these histories we look at a period where notions of psychological trauma and Post Traumatic Stress were culturally absent – at least in the grand institutional narratives.  The horrors of war were expected to be met with stoicism and each person was to do their duty as prescribed by command.  If people did not and gave the appearance of ‘having gone mad’, it was held that these people were slackers, charletans, cowards and/or feeble minded not in possession of the character traits.


Babington’s history details how people were summarily executed if they showed signs of psychological breakdown documenting how the military worked through “discipline of fear” that involved various barbarities.  The escalation of the brutalities came along with the command of Lord Kitchener and Sir Douglas Haig who changed the punishment regimen from flogging parades to execution at the beginning of World War One. This kind of attitude is touched on in the famous satire Blackadder Goes Forth, however the realities of the inhumanity of the British command and the psychological breakdown that people faced were scarcely touched on in the writing:



We can see through the works of Seigfred Sassoon and Wilfred Owen some reportage on the failures and travesty of the period.  In 1916 Wilfred Owen was injured by the blast of a mortar shell and languished for a number of days unconscious on the battlefield where he lay among the remains of his fellow officers. It was after that Owen was diagnosed with neurasthenia and shell shock where he was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh for treatment. It was there he met Siegfried Sassoon whilst they were recovering. They were to write regularly for the hospital magazine named ‘The Hydra’ continuing also to write their poetry for which they are well known.


Shell shock was scarcely recognised which is where Anthony Babbington’s book is so important in revealing what responses the general men met with when psychologically traumatised from their injuries and the general horror.  Despite a growing recognition of the realities of psychological and cognitive disruption through trauma, the stigma of psychiatric trauma lasted well into the Second World War.  This is documented even in the institutional administrations where pilots who were suffering from nervous exhaustion would have ‘LMF’ put on their notes indicating “Lack of Moral Fiber”.  Here is a paper on this institutional failure to recognise harms:


Click here to download paper


Failures of Veracity

I think that culturally we need to develop better capacities to be honest about the failures of leadership which take place in the organisational structures which shape so much about our lives.  If we cannot recognise when idiots are in charge and when a system breeds idiocy into a persons thoughts, before reasonably replacing them with a better functionary, we are courting many more disasters.


In medicine there is recognised by doctors something they call a duty of candour to their patients.  I think that principles like these flow both ways and that citizens have a duty of candour to those people put in place to perform some civic function.  Without this kind of relationship with the truth systems failure is inevitable.  It is analogous to shutting our eyes and wandering about in the world according to the memories and fantasies we construct about the world.


The Donkeys by Alan Clark
The Donkeys by Alan Clark


Click to download sample of book


The Donkeys: Failures of British High Command WW2

Page 11

“This is the story of the destruction of the an army – the old professional army of the United Kingdom that always won the last battle, whose regiments had fought at Quebec, Corunna, in the Indies, were trained in musketry at Hythe, drilled on the parched earth of Chuddapore, and were machine gunned, gassed and finally buried in 1915.


I was drawn to this subject almost by chance. While working in another field I came across the diary of an officer in the Leinsters and was overcome by the horror of the contents and the sense of resignation and duty that characterized the writing. I began serious research, back through the orders of battle and the unit records, in an effort to find out what happened to these who endured for so long such incredible privations, such extremes of misery and squalor.


Their casualties were frightful. In the first two hours of the Battle of Loos more British soldiers died than the total number of casualties in all three services on both sides on D-Day 1944. And slowly, as the field of operations widened, their fate became apparent. Again and again they were called upon to attempt to impossible, and in the end they were all killed. It was as simple as that.


I am anxious that this work should not be thought an ‘indictment’. It is quite outside my intention to take part in arguments which relate, in any case, chiefly to the years of 1916 to 1917. This study is concerned simply with what the Army was ordered to do, and what happened when it attempted to carryout those orders; the results being important from a military-historical standpoint in that this year, 1915, saw the core of professional quality dissipated before it had been either properly equipped or subtantially reinforced.




Page 14

“Wealth and social distinction still counted for much, particularly when, as in all previous wars, it was both necessary and desirable to supplement the issued equipment by personal expenditure. ‘You may hear at any time the sound of shot-guns and come across a party of officers shooting pheasants. There is a pack of beagles run by most cavalry units…'”


Managerial Class

Page 15

“For at this early stage in the fighting the horses were everywhere. It was the cavalry, Queen of the battlefield since the Middle Ages, that caught the eye and imagination: The Scots Greys, the 4th Hussars, the 5th Lancers, the 18th Hussars, the 20th Hussars – in the Expeditionary Force it seemed that there were nearly as many regiments of horse as of foot (actually the proportion was 18 cavalry to 78 infantry, but 17 cavalry regiments were in the line compared with only 42 infantry battalions.


In troop and squadron strength they trotted about the autumn countryside, pennants fluttering from the tips of their lances, young men and their grooms from fox hunting families the length and breadth of Britain, eager for ‘a go at the Boche’.”



Self Aggrandisement

Page 19

“It may be suggested that in the preceding half century the British commanders had acquired reputations that were greatly out of proportion to their achievements. Nor had it been inconvenient for the politicians to allow these inflated reputations to flourish. For the generals were far away; they could make no trouble; and their prowess, as it seemed, reflected glory on the home Government.


Thus a popular tradition of heroic infallibility had been established which was to mate disastrously with the amateurish good humour and ignorance of contemporary military theory that was reality. For the adulation that had been their lot from Press and public had deluded the commanders with nothions of their own ability and made them at the same time secuire against dismissal by the politicians.”


Nepotism and Cronyism

Page 21


Peterhouse Blue


“The British High Command had been constituted in part by Sir John French and Douglas Haig, who had established a friendship in training. French had been given command of the army as The Times reported “there was no painful canvassing of candidates, no acrimonious discussion, no odious comparison of the merits of respective generals…


Rumour had it that French had ‘a liking for the ladies’, and rumour has it that this taste was not unconnected with his urgent need for £2000 when he was commander of the Cavalry Brigade at Aldershot. He had borrowed the money from Douglas Haig, at that time his Brigade Major, and now one of his corps commanders.


Apparently He was not really a ‘Haig’ of Bemersyde, although he took the title on his ennoblement, but came from the whisky making side of the family. Hence he had not enetered the Scots Greys, which might have been considered a natural choice, but had joined the 7th Hussars. He failed the Staff College examination.


However, the Duke of Cambridge, who at that time had the right of nominating candidates was an acquaintance of Haig’s elder sister, Henrietta. Under these auspices Haig applied a second time and the formality of an entrance exam was waived. From there he took frequent leave to attend shooting parties organized by his siser fo the Prince of Wales, and these entries, boldly inscribed In the leave book, made their impression on his instructors.”



Managerial Failure and Catastrophic Strategic Choices

Page 40

“The choices for taking position were blighted by poor decisions on the behalf of high command, often choosing waterlogged lowpoints of the terrain to dig in. The troops were under-resourced and poorly organized despite their training.


“Picks and shovels were considered plentiful when there were as few as two or three per platoon and efforts to commandeer them from civilian sources met with little success, as the Flemish peasants used to bury them rather than part with the tools of their livelihood. There was also a serious shortage of sandbags and wattling for ‘reveting’ the sides of trenches”.


“From the 25th of October until 10th of March there were only eighteen dry days, and on eleven of these the temperature was below freezing. The trenches themselves became little less than culverts, replacing in rudimentary fashion the drainage system of the countryside…


…It was impossible to dig deeper than eighteen inches without finding water, and along whole stretches of the line garrisons had to do their stint with the water waisthigh, for the fire-step had crumbled away and there were not the materials to construct an adequate breastwork after the German fashion.”


On Christmas Day 1914, there had been no firing, and in many sectors the troops had climbed out of their trenches, meeting in No-Man’s-Land, had talked and exchanged gifts. But such a development met with the strongest disapproval at GHQ and the officers responsible were punished, It did not happen again.


GHQ seems to have been slow in realizing that the unfortunate tactical siting of the line was making an important contribution to the ‘wastage’ of lifes from illness and conditions. Finally, when it was seen that the line must be altered, there never seems to have been any thought of achieving this by making local withdrawals and inviting the enemy to step forward into the ‘bad ground’. Instead, a variety of small, but extravagent, attacks were authorized with the intention of straightening the line and eliminating some of the more tiresome German enfilade buttresses that dominated it.”



Ignorance of Front Line Reports

Page 69

“There are various accounts of frontline reports being ignored by High Command to inform which skirmishes were to be undertaken tactically. And example is where on March 11th 1915 troops had “suffered heavily in crossing the open ground that led up to the foremost positions”.


The command structure had met with a flat refusal on the part of the officer in command to go into the attack a second time: “I received a note from the Worcestershire: ‘We have got to advance, will you give the order?’ I answered: ‘No, it is a mere waste of life, impossible to get 20 yards, much less 200. The trenches have not been touched by the artillery. If artillery cannot touch them the only way is to advance from the right flank. A frontal attack will not get near them”


In spite of this the two leading companies of the Worcestershire were ordered over the top by their own commander; here they were shot down almost at once. The fate of Colonel Prichard , after his courageous refusal to subject his men to further pointless slaughter, is not recorded.


At this point it is worth bringing in the book “For the Sake of Example: Capital Courts Martial 1914-18 – The Truth” written by a former circuit judge Anthony Babington. His book examines the introduction of death as punishment for court marshall by the British High Command in this period. Previously, flogging had been the way that court marshal proceedings instilled punishments.



Willful Ignorance of Intelligence Reports

Page 78

“It must be recorded that both the French and British had ample warning of the German’s intention to use gas. On the 20th March some prisoners had been captured on the south side of the alient and under interrogation had given extensive details of the plan and of the placing of the cylinders in the trenches. The idea was regarded as being so fantastic, though, that it took some time to filter up the chain of command, and in the meantime the division was posted to a new area.


When finally it reached Army Headquarters, it was duly published in the bulletin; but this circulated only in the Artois district, over 100 miles away. Then, a week before the attack, a deserter surrendered in the exact area that was to be attacked, near Langemarck, and supported his evidence by showing one of the crude respirators with which the German infantry there had already been issued.


The French divisional commander was gravely impressed, but the corps commander, Balfourier, dismissed the concept as ‘absurd’ and administered a sharp rebuke at the manner in which the usual channels had been bypassed to warn the British and French unites on either side. Then, three days later, the Belgians captured further evidence of the enemy design, and again the information was not taken seriously above brigade level.


All these warnings might just as well have never been given for the heed that was paid them. The higher the rank the more ludicrous did the idea seem the British commanders taking their line from Haig who, a fortnight previously, had given short shrift to a visitor whose mind was working on these lines:


‘Lord Dundonald arrived from England. He is studying the condidtions of War in the hopes of being able to apply to modern conditions an invention of his great-grandfather for driving a garrison out of a fort by using sulphure fumes. I asked him how he arranged to have a favourable wind!”



Hubris: The Battle of Loos the Second Day

Page 169

“Both Haig and Haking were given ample warning that an unprepared attack by two untrained divisions was unlikely to succeed. But the question of revising the order in the light of the Intelligence of reprots does not seem to have been considered. And so the stage was set for a repetition… for the set piece attack of 11th Corps, that was to be launched in the broad light of an hour before noon on the 26th was a futile, and as foredoomed, as that of the Light Brigade.


Not since the German attacks in the closing days of the first battle of Ypres had such dense masses of infantry deployed for a daylight assault… For fully ten minutes the Germans held their fire as the two divisions deployed in column of extended line and started obediently off on their progress down the gentle slope towards the Lens road. It was a tense moment for the enemy, watching in silence until at a range of 1000 yards, the order to fire was given. We have accounts from the German side of this terrible day:


The diary of the 15th Reserve Regiment records that: “Ten columns of extended line could clearly be distinguished, each one estimated at more than a thousand men, and offering such a target as had never been seen before, or even thought possible. Never had the machine gunners such straightforward work to do nor done it so effectively. They traversed to and fro along the enemy’s ranks unceasingly. The men stood on the fire steps, some even on the parapets, and fired triumphantly (jauchsend) into the mass of men advancing across the open grass land. As the entire field of fire was covered with the enemy’s infantry the effect was devastating and theey could be seen falling literally in hundreds.


The German diary noted with amazement: “In spite of it (the intensity of fire) the extended columns continued their advance in good order and without interruption. When they reached the Lens road one of our companies advanced from the Hulluch trench in an attempt to divert the attack, but only a small party of the enemy swung round to meet it, the mass took no notice and went on regardless past the southern front (of the village). Here they came under the enfilade fire both of the troops lining the position and of a battery of artillery concealed in the village. Their losses mounted up rapidly and under this terrific punishment the lines began to get more and more confused. Nevertheless they went on doggedly right up to the wire entanglement.”


The diary of the German 153rd Regiment tells the same sort of story as that of the 15th: “…dense masses of the enemy, line after line, appeared over the ridge, some of their officiers even mounted on horse back and advancing as if carrying out a field day drill in peacetime. Our artillery and machine guns riddled their ranks as they came on. As they crossed the northern front of the Boi Hugo, the machine guns there caught them in the flank and whole battalions were annihilated. The English made five consecutive efforts to press on past the wood and reach the second line position, but finally, weakened by their terrible losses, they had to give in.”


One of the German battalion commanders spoke later of the revolting and nauseating impression made on them all as they watched the slaughter; so much so that after the retreat had begun they ceased fire. Before them was the ‘Leichenfeld (filed of corpses) von Loos’, and, as among them dozens of khaki-clad forms rose up once again and began to limp and crawl back to their own lines, ‘no shot was fired at them from the German trenches for the rest of the day, so great was the feeling of compassion and mercy for the enemy after such a victory.”


There had been twelve battalions making the attack, a strength of just under ten thousand, and in the three and a half hours of the actual battle their casualties were 385 officers and 7861 men. The Germans suffered no casualities.”



These are accounts in memoriam of how life was squandered through mismanagement. The citizens personal responsibility is to ensure a civilian and not a military future, not by bolstering silence but by speaking truth to power, being prepared to hear all sides and commemorating peace by peacable action. Most of all, maybe it is the duty to question those who would bring us into conflict and be intensely aware of the lessons of Prof Arthur Deikman in our day to day experiences.


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