The generals of the First World War, particularly those that served on the Western Front in France and Belgium, have collectively been condemned throughout the last century as a dangerously myopic bunch. They were incapable of fighting effectively, and repeatedly ordered their men to undertake futile offensives that gained little more than a few square miles of shell-shattered ground. As such, these generals are often referred to as ‘donkeys’. The truth, however, is more complicated.


Over recent years, revisionist historians have begun to question the ‘lions led by donkeys’ claim, arguing that these men were hard done by when it came to posterity since they faced an unending series of fiendishly difficult challenges. Chief among them was the need to coordinate evolving weapon systems of unprecedented lethality and strength, including artillery, machine guns, tanks, and air power.

This had to be done with only limited mobility and without the communications technology that would have allowed for rapid exploitation of any success. They also had to organise military activity within a complex strategic environment in which they had to work alongside politicians, in order to find some way out of one of history’s most devastating wars.

Here is a brief guide to 10 of the most important generals on the Western Front:

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General Joseph Joffre

French-Catalan military leader Marshall Joseph Joffre.
General Joseph Joffre. (Photo by Henry Miller News Picture Service/FPG/Getty Images)

France’s field commander between 1914 and 1916, Joffre did not look like a soldier; he never missed a meal and so had a notable paunch. Yet he possessed a grasp on military operations that was essential to France’s survival. His decision to fight at the first battle of the Marne in September 1914 proved to be a turning point in the early stages of the war as it prevented a quick German victory. Although over the following two years he was unable to beat the German Army, Joffre deserves his place as one of the most significant soldiers of the 20th century.

Colonel-General Helmuth von Moltke

Engraving depicts German Field Marshal and Prussian Army Chief of Staff Helmuth Graf von Moltke (1800 - 1891), mid to late 19th century. Known as 'Moltke the Elder,' his nephew Helmuth Johann Ludwig von Moltke led the German Army at the outbreak of World War I.
Colonel-General Helmuth Graf von Moltke. (Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images)

Helmuth von Moltke the younger, nephew of the great Prussian general of the 19th century, had been appointed Chief of the General Staff in 1906, and was the man to lead Germany into war in 1914. But he was unable to coordinate the invasion of France and Belgium, known as the ‘Schlieffen Plan’, and suffered a nervous breakdown in September. With a personal demeanour that bordered on the depressive, Moltke the Younger lacked the energy and determination to stamp his authority on his commanders – who frequently acted independently – and struggled to cope with a war of such violence and destruction.

Field Marshal Sir John French

Sir John French.
Field Marshal Sir John French. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In the South African War, Sir John French was a cavalryman who oversaw the relief of Kimberley in 1900. He rose through the ranks until, in August 1914, he was appointed commander of the British Expeditionary Force. Although personally courageous he was intellectually limited and struggled to cope with the demands of the Western Front. French soon became depressed and anxious about the great loss of life in the army and, following the British defeat at the battle of Loos in the autumn of 1915, was replaced by Sir Douglas Haig.

General Erich von Falkenhayn

General Erich von Falkenhayn.
General Erich von Falkenhayn. (Picture by GettyImages)

Cold, calculating and thoroughly modern in his appreciation of military power, Falkenhayn led Germany through its most successful spell of the war, between 1914 and 1916. He authorised a shift of resources to the Eastern Front and the Balkans, and oversaw the dismemberment of the Russians and the conquest of Serbia and Romania. The successes came crashing down, however, with Falkenhayn’s decision to unleash the battle of Verdun in February 1916 with the intention to ‘bleed white’ the French Army. It was a fateful mistake that caused horrific casualties and sucked the German Army into a deadly battle that it could not win.

General Philippe Pétain

General Philippe Pétain.
General Philippe Pétain. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

The intelligent and perceptive Pétain bucked the trend in the pre-war French Army by emphasizing the importance of firepower and the extreme danger of mass frontal assaults. Having gained a reputation as a thoughtful and careful officer, he was appointed Commander-in-Chief following the disastrous Nivelle offensive in the spring of 1917, and was instrumental in returning the army to health following the outbreak of mutiny and disorder. Pétain ensured that the French, despite widespread exhaustion, would be able to continue into 1918.

General Sir Douglas Haig

Sir Douglas Haig.
Sir Douglas Haig. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Arguably the most controversial and reviled military commander in British history, Haig took charge of the British Expeditionary Force in December 1915 and led it through both its worst days (including the first day on the Somme, 1 July 1916) and its best (such as the battle of Amiens on 8 August 1918, and the breaking of the Hindenburg Line on 29 September 1918). His sense of method and order, his calmness and self-possession, distinguished Haig from the more mercurial Sir John French, but he showed a lack of imagination towards alternative methods of operations. Throughout 1916 and 1917, he continued to insist in the decisive breakthrough despite many of his own generals having abandoned the concept.

General Sir Henry Rawlinson

General Sir Henry Rawlinson.
General Sir Henry Rawlinson. (Photo by: Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

An infantryman who commanded the British Fourth Army on the Somme, Rawlinson’s main contribution to military tactics was the notion of ‘bite and hold’. By as early as 1915, Rawlinson had recognised the impossibility of breaking through heavily defended trench systems without prohibitive casualties, so devised a way of fighting that concentrated firepower on small parts of the front, which could be ‘bitten off’ and held by infantry. This would hopefully provoke the enemy into making repeated and wasteful counter-attacks. Rawlinson’s ‘bite and hold’, by focusing on attrition rather than gaining ground, proved highly effective in 1916-17, if not always convincing its critics, Haig among them, that it was a viable way to the fight the war. His Fourth Army went on to play a key role in the final offensives of 1918 that broke the Germans.

General Ferdinand Foch

General Ferdinand Foch.
General Ferdinand Foch. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Foch had served on the Western Front since 1914 when, in the last year of the war, he was appointed Allied generalissimo. Aggressive and self-confident, he had never lost his sense of purpose and optimism in the face of enormous casualties sustained by the French between 1914 and 1917. His oft-quoted maxim that ‘A battle won is a battle which we will not acknowledge to be lost’ sums up his indefatigable character and enduring belief in victory. In March 1918, Foch was chosen to head up the defence of Amiens, and was then granted additional powers to coordinate all coalition forces across the Western Front the following month. He led the Allied armies to victory in 1918.

General Erich Ludendorff

General Erich Ludendorff.
General Erich Ludendorff. (Photo by GettyImages)

Ludendorff was a prodigiously gifted staff officer: aggressive, uncompromising and excelled at battle tactics. From August 1916 to October 1918, he served as the main German field commander. But as the war dragged on, he showed a lack of strategic insight into Germany’s challenges and an increasingly cavalier attitude. By 1918, Ludendorff had become a near-dictatorial figure and refused to recognise the need for a political settlement that would bring a successful conclusion (with some necessary compromises). He insisted upon a final, decisive victory on the battlefield, which led to his decision to mount a massive assault on the Western Front in March 1918, known as Operation Michael. It was a miscalculation of enormous proportions that would bring the German Army to defeat just eight months later.

General John Pershing

General John Pershing.
General John Pershing. (Photo by GettyImages)

Pershing was the United States’ field commander in France in 1917-18. During that time, he had to find the balance between the need to create a single, unified army with its own sector of the front, and the understandable British and French desire to deploy American infantry sooner and in greater numbers. Inscrutable and hard to read, Pershing needed to combine a willingness to work with US partners and a toughness in defending the nation’s interests.


He grew convinced that the Allied powers were too pessimistic and worn down by trench warfare, and wanted his infantry to fight open, manoeuvre combat. This soon put him at odds with some of his own officers, many of whom recognised the lessons that had been learnt by the British and French since 1914, and urged caution on the battlefield. Despite disappointing results at the battle of St Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in the autumn of 1918, Pershing was indispensable to the Allied victory that year.


Professor Nick LloydProfessor of Modern Warfare

Nick Lloyd is Professor of Modern Warfare in the Defence Studies Department at Kings College London. He has published widely on military and imperial history in the era of the Great War.