Pity the Generals

“I think that the damn old cuss of a preacher lied like Dixie. For he said that God has fought all our battles and won our victories. Now if He had done all that, why is it not in the papers, and why has he not been promoted?”

-Sergeant Albinis Fell

Generals are often accused of taking up too many pages of the history books and getting far too much of the credit for the privations and efforts of the soldiers under their command. “Our blood, his guts” the weary soldiers said of George Patton as they slogged through the Italian campaign. Of course it often works the other way. Generals often get left holding the bag when the cat has run off, even if it really isn’t totally their fault. But as it is often said that success is of many fathers while failure is an orphan, I thought it would be fun to highlight a few generals, who, though often not as bad as often made out to be, really took the hard fall for military misadventure.

1. The Unfortunate General Mack.

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The problem for General Karl Mack von Leiberich is that he had to go head to head with Napoleon Bonaparte, and remarkably few people on his side of the equation before 1812 fared well in that deal. But he did himself no favors either. After a fairly mixed early career, he lead the Austrian Army against Napoleon in 1804, doing a fairly poor job of keeping the momentous Napoleon from getting behind at Ulm, where, after a few minor skirmishes, Mack was maneuvered into an untenable position and forced to surrender a large portion of Austria’s army, essentially without a fight. He personally surrendered to Napoleon, referring to himself as the “unfortunate General Mack”, at which point he was released to Vienna, where he was court-martialled and stripped of his honors. History and Tolstoy’s writings have both passed him to posterity as a general who was extremely ‘unfortunate’.

2. Matthias Gallas, the Runiner of Armies

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Another Austrian commander, the Italian Matthias Gallas, Count of Campo and Duke of Lucera, led the Imperial Army against the Swedes and French in the latter days of the Thirty Years War. While enjoying a long career as a soldier of fortune, Gallas was infected with a fairly common disease of the period, rabid alcoholism, which grew to dominate his personality as the Thirty Years War dragged on. Under his unsteady supervision (not a trait admirable at the best of times; an even greater liability when leading a large army of mercenaries) Imperial armies were unable to turn temporary success against the Swedes into victory on numerous occasions, and became a liability as his armies repeatedly suffered defeats or were forced by lack of supplies to withdraw. He was grudgingly competent, but the drink increasingly muddled his mind. He was relieved and then reinstated on multiple occasions, and finally died one year before the peace was signed. So poor was his generalship, that he would come to bear the title “Heeres verderben” or “the Ruiner of Armies”.

3. Admiral Byng, Shot to Encourage the Others

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The case of Admiral John Byng just goes to show that public service does not always pay, and in fact it can often be fatal. Rising through the ranks of the Navy with a distinguished career, he had the misfortune to fall victim to an unfortunate naval fight off the Island of Minorca, which was under siege from the French Navy and Army. The weather conditions were against him, and he failed to destroy the French fleet off Minorca, though arguably he was simply trying to avoid a costly mistake which could have led to his dismissal as it had one of his predecessors. Unfortunately for Byng, it was decided that his actions were actually a dereliction of duty, and he was court martialled and sentenced to death. He was shot aboard ship, himself dropping the handkerchief that was the signal to fire. The scene was immortalized in a fictionalized version by Voltaire in his novel Candide, in which an Englishman observing the execution remarks “in this country, it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, in order to encourage the others”.

4. Ambrose Burnside, Stuck in the Mud

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History has not been kind to the majority of the commanders of the Army of the Potomac before the arrival of Ulysses Grant in 1864. Though each had overwhelming resources and in many cases numerical superiority, Irwin McDowell, George McClellan, John Pope, Joseph Hooker, and George Meade all received a world of criticism for their failures to beat the smaller Confederate armies that opposed them or to follow up their victories with decisive actions. But none take as much grief as Ambrose Burnside, the Rhode Islander whose military career was a disastrous affair. Not truly a bad soldier, Burnside had a spectacular habit (in the view of his apologists) for getting himself into the position of being royally screwed by his superiors and staff. The debacle at the bridge that bears his name at Antietam, and the attack and last-minute reversal of his potentially war-winning attack on Lee’s exposed flank was largely backed up by his inability to request reinforcements from General McClellan. Given command of the army after Antietam, his new drive on Richmond foundered at the Rappahannock river, where his advance on the town of Fredericksburg was stalled by long delays in getting the pontoons needed to make a crossing from the War Department. When he could get across he found Lee’s forces dug in and waiting for him. The disastrous battle that followed was made worse by his attempt to make a flanking march around the entrenched rebels that ground to a halt as freezing winter rains turned his road into a “Mud March” that ended his command by early spring. He did far better further West in Tennessee, but his career ended back in a hole (literally) when his carefully planned attack on the Crater at Petersburg was largely sabotaged by his superior officer, General Meade. This finally ended his career, though he later enjoyed a long career in industry and in government, as well as being honored by the name “sideburns” being given the distinctive jowl-line beard that he grew.

5.  John French, Old and Very Contemptible

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Sir John French, commander of the British Expeditionary Force in Europe, 1914, has received a right panning in history. From the spoofs of Blackadder and Oh, What A Lovely War! French has gained a reputation for being a true donkey leading lions, sending his men into headlong attacks against German trenches and machine guns. But in fact, French was a very capable officer with a very unfortunate job. The BEF consisted of professional British soldier and was considered the best trained army in Europe. However, it was tiny as compared to the much larger armies of Germany and France, and earned its nickname “Old Contemptibles” from the Kaiser’s observation of how tiny it was. Indeed, French’s command and its size was based on the fact that the BEF’s professionalism had been expected to act a spoiling factor; a small, well-disciplined force able to hold its own in a war of movement against the Germans in the opening months of the war.  Indeed, it performed quite well in its first actions.

Sadly, Sir French’s command was simply not big enough to fight unsupported by his French allies, and he was forced to pull back when the French did. French commanded his forces well enough, but was unable to make a breakthrough in 1914 as his tiny forces simply lacked the numbers, and he had been told by the British government that he was not to ruin his forces simply to suit the whim of General Joffre, the French commander and Allied Field Marshal on the Western Front. Realizing that the war was going to be a lot longer and more costly than anticipated, French expressed his opinions publicly and was strongly rebuked by the government, his colleagues, and the King. Further under-supported by the ill prepared British Armaments Industry and Lord Kitchener while being pressured constantly for action by Joffre, French’s fights at Ypres and Loos in 1914 and 1915 destroyed the core of the BEF. His own faults were also very evident, as he failed to properly adapt to confront the challenges of his new war and personally antagonized many of his friends. French’s rather poor relations with his Belgian and French allies did not help his cause, and he was brought back to oversee air defenses/training in Britain in 1915 and later performed with questionable competency in Ireland during the Irish Wars of Independence. French’s performance in the early months has inspired much controversy over his true competency and capability, and been presented as a prelude to later British slaughter fields on the Somme and at Paschendaale.

There are many unfortunate commanders, deservedly or undeservedly, and their names have become as infamous in history. While every commanders makes mistakes, by fortune or by design, some are doomed to become warnings to other commanders and the butt of military jokes for centuries to come.

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