The qualities of leadership examined: Two excellent books taking us from the Great War to the Highlands of Vietnam expose how the qualities a commander needed were pretty much the same even if the circumstances was vastly different.
It’s highly likely that the next few weeks will see many pilgrims heading out to pay their respects to Richard Winters at the memorial statue to him on the Normandy battlefield. Leadership is something we all have aspirations about. For some it is the desire to emulate the qualities men like Winters show. For others it is the need to have decent people guiding them on through their lives. You want your boss to be a decent type – efficient, fair and inspirational. How many times have you wondered why that bloke running the company mailroom is such a klutz or, conversely, marvelled at the seemingly endless powers of the principal at your kids’ school? There are always highs and lows when it comes to the abilities of others, especially when their actions can have such an impact on you!
Perceptions being what they are, it might seem odd to dovetail British generals of 1914 with a man like Hal Moore. But the fact is all these men faced the same problems at different levels of command and although the kit and scenery changed all the things that matter are pretty much the same. Whether it is at First Ypres or in the Highlands of Vietnam the vagaries of skill, political interference and brasshat incompetence and jealousies have the same bearing. Men will die and battles will be won or lost. The difference is usually reflected by the quality of the man on the ground making the crucial decisions. It really doesn’t matter if he arrived by horse or Huey.
The British Expeditionary Force of 1914 was small at just six divisions compared to the vast conscript armies of France and Germany. It was all volunteer and of an immensely high quality for it’s size. But it had problems. It is a given fact that the leadership was not all brilliant. The important little trio pscon a chap’s file meant he had passed the staff college test. At that crucial time in the Edwardian era when future war winning soldiers were propelled from the 19th century into a new age, there were plenty of ostriches decrying the notion a staff was even needed. These flat earthers took no interest in the hard military truths coming out of Germany. In Hal Moore’s time a cabal of jealous officers delayed the introduction of the air cavalry and you just want to bang all these idiots heads together, don’t you? But when has any army been so replete with tactical or logistical geniuses that it cannot fail? Even Napoleon got it wrong.
The British had spent a long time recovering from the bruising realities of the 2nd Boer War when skilled use of terrain and strong abilities with the Mauser rifle had given the Boers a huge advantage against the often amateurish approach of the British soldiers facing them. But hard lessons crucial to the conduct of a future conflict had been learned by a good many important figures, men with vast experience with sword and lance as well as a keen appreciation of the new fangled industrial and continental warfare that was about to decimate a generation. Getting these men into the positions where they might do good things was a wholly different matter. The officer corps of armies are riven with cliques and champions jealous of their doctrinal beliefs and sureties. A lot of bollocks has been written about the British commanders from the so-called Donkeysera with assassinations cooked up by the clever but flawed Allan Clark. His hall of mirrors had a vast impact on the impressionable glitterati fighting their little class wars and other conflicts during the 1960s and the stain of his deceits are all over the historiography of the Great War today.
Jump to Vietnam and it is apparent from Mike Guardia that Moore would have recognised so much about the politics and rivalries of 1914 in the army he knew and loved. Good and bad officers abound in both books, but whereas it is the task of Spencer Jones to guide us through a cast of names, Guardia is free to concentrate on Hal Moore and left me feeling the man could be a candidate for a memorial similar to the immortal Dick Winters when a suitable time comes. I can see why the author is a little in awe of him.
Fifty years earlier and despite all the BS, there were some truly splendid British officers leading battalions, brigades, divisions and corps in battle against overwhelming odds. Some died doing this and should be remembered with immense respect. It’s easy to pick out John French as a duffer out of his depth and jealous, if not hostile towards some erstwhile friends and foreign allies alike. I have never considered him more than a bit of an arse, but he could not have risen to the position of field marshal in a professional army without having a degree of wit and skills. His corps commanders, Smith-Dorien and Haig enjoyed vastly different relationships with him and French’s antipathy would ruin the career of the bold Smith-Dorien while Haig would rise to a greatness his champions struggle to convince a dubious world about today. Haig is said to have contempt for French but masked it well until he was able to take his job.
In Mike Guardia’s life of Hal Moore much of this sort of unseemly politics is overlooked. But it cannot be that the US Army did not have it’s own bundle of incompetents, time-servers and intriguers filling senior positions when our hero carefully scaled the promotion ladder.
Moore’s career is defined by his days leading his battalion at IaDrang. You’ve seen the movie and hopefully read the book. If you haven’t, remedy this toot sweet. Both had immense impact on Mike Guardia, which is why we are here. It isn’t a big leap from the days when an aspiring West Pointer would need the patronage of a politician just to get in and although it was fiction, I draw you to the classic Attack! to see the poisonous situation derived from the characters of a ruthless and ambitious Lee Marvin and the cowardly but connected Eddie Albert and the crapstorm they cause for the lower ranks. The prize of leadership impacts in all kinds of ways.
Solid leaders like Capper, Bulfin and FitzClarence from 1914 came from an almost closed society of an officer caste not far advanced from the cancerous age of purchased commissions. After the Boer War it was crystal clear that, regardless of the seemingly Jurassic pace of change prior to Haldane that professionalism and a good brain were worth much as much if not more than the crest on the silver spooned world they came from. Forward thinking officers of their ilk which included many of the dubiously tagged donkeys of our shared fixations would recognise the immense quality of Hal Moore and I am sure it would have been reciprocated.
Spencer Jones has edited a wonderful series of essays detailing the leadersof 1914 and the decision making process that held the fate of a relatively small British field army that continues to enjoy mythical status today. His contributors have given me as much food for thought as they have factual knowledge. Mike Guardia brings us the life of a great soldier and many of the excellent and sometimes not so brilliant colleagues he served with. Moore wasn’t unique but like Dick Winters and others we venerate he had something special. He was and always will be a soldier’s soldier.
Change the geography and the uniforms and the similarities between Hal Moore and some of the Brits are often stark. What does this tell us? Simple. Armies and leaders haven’t changed much over the years. What matters is the balance of quality of the people. Some will have an influence out of all proportion while others just get the job done. We can admire them all. These two fantastic books will help you find this path to enlightenment and despite the years and miles they do go together.
Book Reviews by Mark Barnes for War History Online
A Soldier Once …and Always
By Mike Guardia
ISBN: 978 1 61200 207 1
STEMMING THE TIDE
Officers and Leadership in the British Expeditionary Force 1914
Edited by Spencer Jones
ISBN: 978 1 909384 45 3