Myth Busters



Kindly sent by the teacher and historian Roy Huggins, this collection of quotes is from:


Gordon Corrigan, Mud, Blood and Poppycock (2004)



Butcher of the Somme?          Lions led by Donkeys?          'Horrors' of the trenches




The central idea of Mud, Blood and Poppycock is that myths have grown up and entered the popular consciousness about World War One - especially about Haig and the generals - which are greatly exaggerated or mistaken:



Was General Haig the “Butcher of the Somme”?


Source A: Mud, Blood and Poppycock, page 203

The life and work of Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the BEF from December 1915 and a field marshal from January 1917, has probably been the subject of more contradictory analysis than any other general in British military history.  To some he was a butcher and a bungler, to others the man who won the war.


Source B: Mud, Blood and Poppycock, page 206

Historical opinion is shifting, and shifting in favour of Haig.  Public opinion has yet to follow, but much of the received wisdom about Haig is founded on tainted evidence, or no evidence at all.  This author, at least, can only conclude that Haig has been grievously wronged.


Source C: Mud, Blood and Poppycock, page 205

Haig is pictured as uncaring, and his failure to visit the wounded in hospital is often cited as an example of his unfeeling attitude to the deaths that resulted from his plans.  Haig did visit the wounded regularly in the early days.  It was his staff officers, noting the effect it had on him, who advised him to stop.  A commander who is psychologically damaged by the sight of so many wounded and maimed soldiers – his own soldiers – cannot be at his best.


Source D: Mud, Blood and Poppycock, page 198

Generals, and indeed officers of any rank, may seem uncaring to the civilian mind.  A commander cannot allow the death of one, or a hundred or a thousand of the men placed under him to affect his performance.  If he does, that commander cannot properly discharge his responsibilities to the others who are still alive.  Life has to go on, and while any commander will miss a fallen comrade, and regret his passing, he must move on: there is little time to mourn.  Any general will make plans with the possibility of casualties well to the forefront of his thinking, but war is a nasty business, and killing is part of it.  British generals were not uncaring but they accepted, as they had to, that the very nature of the war, would lead to many deaths however hard they tried to avoid them.


Source E: Mud, Blood and Poppycock, page 205

Haig wanted a breakthrough; he never wanted to engage the British army in battles of attrition.  Until 1918 that breakthrough was never achieved, but nor could anybody else on either side achieve it.  Haig was neither hidebound nor resistant to technology; indeed it was Haig who, on taking command of the BEF, first heard of the experiments with tanks and insisted that development should be given a high priority.  That tanks when first used were not the hoped-for war-winning weapon was nothing to do with Haig, but rather with problems inherent in development of any new method of waging war.  Haig encouraged the development of air power, and it was the BEF who by 1918 had the only strategic bomber force capable of any meaningful contribution to the war.


Source F: Mud, Blood and Poppycock, page 204

Alone amongst the original warring powers, the morale of the British army never cracked, and it was the British army that in 1918 was the only Allied army capable of mounting a massive and sustained offensive.  During the ‘Hundred Days’ of 1918 Haig’s army decisively defeated the German army on the Western Front.  When criticism of him began in the 1930s, General Pershing, Commander in Chief of the American army on the Western Front and not a man naturally inclined towards the British, said, ‘How can they do this to the man who won the war?’


Source G: Mud, Blood and Poppycock, page 204

On balance Haig was the best commander that the British army could produce at the time, and had there been any other general capable of stepping into his shoes, Prime Minister Lloyd George would have found him.  Anyone who examines Haig’s relations with his own government is driven to the conclusion that no commander in chief should be so treated in the midst of a war on foreign soil.



Butcher of the Somme?

Lions led by Donkey?


Source H: Mud, Blood and Poppycock, page 194

Altogether four British lieutenant generals, twelve major generals and eighty-one brigadier generals died or were killed between 1914 and 1918.  A further 146 were wounded or taken prisoner.  Whatever else the generals were doing they were certainly not sitting in a comfortable chateaux.


Source I: Mud, Blood and Poppycock, page 195 - 6

It can be argued that generals should not be anywhere near the front line.  It is not the business of a general to kill the enemy, but to control the battle so that units under his command can do the killing.  Here was one of the great quandaries of the war.  The general had to be close enough to the fighting to know what was going on, but far enough from it to be able to communicate: with the artillery, with his own subordinate formations, with flanking units and with his own superiors.  Today a general, at whatever level of command, can operate from a relatively small mobile headquarters, using radio and satellite communications.  None of this was available to a commander of 1914 – 18.


Source I: Mud, Blood and Poppycock, page 197

Most generals slept in a bed with a roof over them – they could not possibly have done their job in a dugout in the firing line – but they were very busy men. 


Source J: Mud, Blood and Poppycock, page 189

The typical British general of the time is thought to be old, grey haired, overweight and sporting a large moustache, a cavalryman dressed in boots and breeches and carrying a swagger cane.  Comfortably ensconced (living) in their chateaux well behind the lines, oblivious to the trials and tribulations of the men in the trenches, the ‘donkeys’ continued to send men in parade-ground formation across machine gun swept open ground onto impenetrable barbed wire, which their own artillery failed to destroy.  The awkward fact that the Allies did actually win the war is variously ascribed to German exhaustion and social unrest, the Americans, the French or the Royal Navy blockade.  That the British army was the only major army on the Western Front, which did not suffer a major collapse of morale, is explained by British stolidity (bravery) in the face of incompetent leadership.


Source K: Mud, Blood and Poppycock, page 194

At divisional level in 1918 few of the major generals were over fifty, most were in their late forties and Jackson was thirty-nine. At brigade level there was a wide range: most brigadiers were in their late forties and hardly any were over fifty in 1918. Jack and Brand were thirty-eight and had started the war as captains in 1914.  Further down the chain of command, lieutenant colonels commanding battalions were often in their thirties – or even twenties – by 1918.


Source L: Mud, Blood and Poppycock, page 194

A cardinal principle of military doctrine, at least in the British army, is that defence must be aggressive, and that in defence one must endeavour to dominate no man’s land.  By doing so the defender has the initiative: the enemy is prevented from close reconnaissance and from interfering with the defenders’ obstacles (at that time, barbed wire).  Aggressive defence for infantry means patrolling, sniping and ambushing in no man’s land, and trench raiding. Trench raiding is one way of ensuring that one’s own troops do not become defensive minded, but think aggressively and have a sense of hitting the enemy rather than just holding a line of trenches




Lions led by Donkeys?

The 'Horrors' of the Trenches


Source L: The Perception: Mud, Blood and Poppycock, page 76

The perception of soldiering in the Great War is of a young patriot enlisting in 1914 to do his bit, and then being shipped off to France.  Arriving at one of the Channel ports he marches all the way up to the front, singing ‘Tipperary’ and smoking his pipe, forage cap on the back of his head.  Reaching the firing line, he is put into a filthy hole in the ground and stays there until 1918.  If he survives, he is fed a tasteless and meagre diet of bully beef and biscuits.  Most days, if he is not being shelled or bombed, he goes ‘over the top’ and attacks a German in a similar position a few yards away across no man’s land.  He never sees a general and rarely changes his lice infested clothes, while rates gnaw the dead bodies of his comrades.


Source M: Marching: Mud, Blood and Poppycock, page 76

The original BEF, composed of pre-war regulars and reservists, did do quite a lot of marching, but they would have been very unlucky to have to tramp all the way from Boulogne to Belgium.  As far as possible men moved by train until they were a few miles from the front, and as the war went on and motor lorries became available these too were used to speed up movement.  As early as 1914 London buses were shipped out to the front for use as troop carriers.


Source N: Trenches: Mud, Blood and Poppycock, page 79

French and German ideas on trench construction differed according to the military philosophy of the two nations.  The French military doctrine was of constant aggression: the offensive was what mattered, and their works reflected this.  They were largely earthen, used little concrete and were often without revetment (zigzagging).  Their main purpose was to provide a launching pad for the French attacks.  German defences. On the other hand, were stoutly and meticulously constructed.  Concrete was used and deep dugouts were built; in some cases so well built and so deep that no Allied artillery could affect them, as the British would learn to their cost on the Somme.


Source O: Trenches: Mud, Blood and Poppycock, page 79

The design and dimensions of British trenches were based on a good British compromise.  The British adopted much from the French methods, but they also used concrete and revetting when available.  Unlike the French, the British were not wedded to the idea of constant attacks.  Indeed, in private some British commanders and politicians thought that Britain should stay on the defensive until her New armies were ready and then intervene massively, end the war and dictate the future shape of Europe.


Source P: Toilets: Mud, Blood and Poppycock, page 85

Despite the tales of rats, lice and general filth, cleanliness and hygiene in the trenches were strictly enforced.  The paid a great deal of attention to its latrines, as indeed it had to.  Disease caused by poor hygiene had dogged armies throughout history and dysentery had always been a big problem.  By now the army was well aware that if human waste was not disposed of properly, unnecessary casualties would follow.  The average made produces 2.4 pounds weight of faeces and urine per day.  In the average company defended position this in a ton a week.  In the forward areas latrines were constructed just behind the trenches at the end of a communication trench and out of view of the enemy.  They were usually deep pits with wooden seats on top.  Disinfectant was provided and when full the latrine was closed.


Source Q: Rats: Mud, Blood and Poppycock, page 88

A general lack of cleanliness made worse by food left lying about, particularly in and around horse lines and abandoned ration dumps, could of course attract rats.  They did scamper around in no man’s land and bodies left uncovered did provide food for them.  Bodies were always buried whenever humanly possible and taken to the rear for temporary burial, before being given a proper funeral.  Bodies left lying around where the fell were not good fore morale; they were never left in the trenches or buried in the parapet as was the practice in the French trenches.


Source R: Lice: Mud, Blood and Poppycock, page 88

Good discipline got rid of rubbish and edible scraps, and rats were rarely a problem in the trenches, although lice, inevitable when men cannot wash properly, sometimes were.  On coming out of the line troops had their uniforms fumigated, laundered and ironed, and if necessary exchanged to reduce the risk of infestation.


Source S: Rest: Lice, Mud, Blood and Poppycock, page 89

British soldiers did not spend four years of the war in the firing line, or even at the front.  Men were regularly rotated from the firing line to the support and reserve trenches and then back to billets, usually well behind the battle area.  With a division having two brigades in the line and one out, and with each brigade having two of its four battalions in the line, a battalion could expect on average, to spend just ten days a month in the trenches. It was unusual to find any battalion spending more than four or five days a month continuously in the firing line.


Source T: Trench Foot:  Mud, Blood and Poppycock, page 95

The winter of 1914 –15 was exceptionally cold and wet, and flooding of trenches was a problem.  Initially this led to large numbers of men contracting trench foot, caused by lack of circulation in the feet and legs and. If untreated, leading to gangrene and amputation.  Most cases were caught before recourse to the knife but, before preventative measures were enforced, many soldiers suffered from bad feet.  The remedies were the issue of whale oil and thigh high rubber waders, the loosening of puttees, regular changing of socks, and drainage of the trenches.  At first drains were soak pits dug into the floor, but mechanical pumps would later be provided.  By the middle of 1915 trench foot had all but been eliminated, except in battalions new to the front.


Source U: Rations:  Mud, Blood and Poppycock, page 88

It is now recognised that a fit, active and athletic adult male needs a daily intake of between 3,000 and 2,500 calories.  Heavy physical work or exceptional cold increases the requirements.  The British army aimed to give its soldiers at the front a daily intake of 4,193 calories.  This was less than the French and more than the Germans who aimed for 4,466 and 4,038 calories respectively.  Soldiers rarely went hungry except in the most extreme circumstances.  Soldiers did not complain about lack of food, although they did complain about its monotony.


Source V: Rations:  Mud, Blood and Poppycock, page 97

Where possible fresh meet was bread were issued, even in the firing line when a hot meal might be brought up at night, but there were many times when the fighting meant that the men had to survive on corned beef and biscuits.  Nevertheless, while hardly appetising, this was a far better diet than many had been used to at home, where in poorer households meat was eaten once or twice a week, and it was healthy and filling.  The tea issue was enough to provide each man with six pints of army tea a day, and British soldiers have always loved their tea!


Source W: Rations:  Mud, Blood and Poppycock, page 97

It has generally been considered that one indicator of morale and discipline in a unit is its sick rate: that is the percentage of men reporting sick with ailments due to causes other than enemy action.  Before the war it was considered that 0.3 daily, or about three men a day in an infantry battalion of 750 men was a reasonable sick rate for an army in the field.  Te rate for 1913 was in fact 0.12 percent and after the war, 1929 to 1928, it was 0.17.  On the Western Front, with total war in full swing, the sick rate for August to December 1914 was 0.26, declining to 0.24 percent in 1915 and 0.13 percent in 1016.  Throughout he war the sick rate was well below acceptable peacetime rates.  The conclusion, saving shot and shell fire, the Western Front was a remarkably healthy place to be throughout the war!


'Horrors' of the Trenches